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The wrong direction

Joel and Ethan Coen, revered film-makers and darlings of the art-house circuit, seem to have run out of ideas. Is it time to ditch the brotherhood?

By David Thomson

11 June 2004

Everyone likes the Coen brothers, or has liked them - or has liked the idea of them. Forgive me if it sounds like I'm backing into a dark corner. There are still so many reasons to cherish the Coen brothers: there's the fact that one of them (Joel) is married to Frances McDormand, while the other (Ethan) is her brother-in-law. There's the undying picture of them as two deadpan ironists from Minnesota who decline to take anything - especially Hollywood and the American motion-picture business - seriously.

They are dry, they are cool, they are dudes - whatever else, there is The Big Lebowski to their credit, one of the great cult films of America, dedicated to the unsurpassed splendour of those dudes (idle male poseurs) who do not notice that they are dysfunctional idiots and crackpots. And this is to say nothing of Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Fargo, or O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

But the time has come to ask that same question of the Coens themselves. With their latest film, The Ladykillers (a strange remake of the classic English comedy that starred Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom), they have now notched up three films in a row that ill become them: not just films that haven't done very well, but in which the energy of, or desire for, film-making seems to be slipping away. It's as if the job now strikes them as a habit, and I think their fans are bridling at that. For, once upon a time, it was a working definition of the Coen brothers that they did the things few others in Hollywood dared to do, and did them in a manner that was fresh, funny and touching.

Joel, the elder by three years, will be 50 this year. That comes as a bit of a shock to us, however it may affect him. Middle age isn't exactly Coenish, is it? (Though one of the troubling aspects about Dude's becalmed kingdom in The Big Lebowski was that Jeff Bridges, its emblematic lead actor, was really too old to be running this stuff.)

This isn't a small point, and it isn't one that applies to the Coens alone. But there is a pitfall in American film whereby the brilliant kids can fade without quite growing up. There are those who would argue that this condition affected Orson Welles and Nicholas Ray, just as much as Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. The age of 50 turned out to be curtains, too, for Frank Capra: that's about when he made It's a Wonderful Life. And if I list the Coens' past three films - The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty and The Man Who Wasn't There - you have to admit there's a falling-off from, say, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink.

In so many ways, early promise contains the seeds of future dismay. In the early Eighties, when Blood Simple (their first picture) made its debut at the New York Film Festival, Joel and Ethan Coen were a romantic and appealing couple. Ethan had been to Princeton and Joel to Simon's Rock College, Massachusetts, but after that they were as one in their approach. They studied film together at New York University (in the years when Scorsese was the inspiring figure there), and they developed a way of working that amounted to them against the world - they wrote the scripts together, Ethan acted as producer and Joel was the director. And because they did it all themselves, they were that much more economical than other approaches, and they were a band of brothers. Could any set-up offer more integrity?

The proof of the scheme was to be found in Blood Simple (1984), an assured, precocious film noir, set and shot in rural Texas on a meagre budget, with players who had not really been seen before, including McDormand in her first film. Blood Simple was violent and nasty in inventive and piquant ways: there was a scene with a knife, a window and a self-stabbing that you had to see to believe - if you could bear to look.

But the whole thing seemed the work of kids who had seen so much film noir while growing up that their gloss on the genre was brazen and comic, in a merciless way. This was a very cool film, almost insolent in its attitude, in which the Coen boys seemed to like or trust no one. But its promise paid off: made in absolute independence for a couple of hundred thousand dollars, Blood Simple grossed more than $2m at the American box-office. Broadly speaking, if a film can gross three times its cost on American theatrical release, it gets into profit with a speed that the business appreciates.

So the Coen brothers had crossed the threshold with enough flair and impact to get offers from the major studios. This is a key moment in the history of independent movie-makers. Do they hold to their youthful determination to make nothing but the films of their dreams? Do they yield to the rich Hollywood offers and cash in, hoping that they can get back to their own kind of work later? Or do they suppose that they can steer a skilled course between the two, having it both ways?

It is to the credit of the Coens that they seem never to have departed from the approach that made Blood Simple - they insist on remaining a couple of insolent, cool dudes who must always work together (because that is the outward proof of their integrity). They have never cashed in, never gone for the big, crowd-pleasing blockbuster. For what it cost to make their six most recent movies (Fargo, O Brother..., The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn't There, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers) you could have made either Troy or The Day After Tomorrow. That's right: six pictures for the price of one.

And the funny thing about the mindset of film-making today is that it would happily give up a mixed bag of six, modest, challenging pictures for one shot at bonanza success. In other words, by insisting on doing their own thing, doing it cheaply and producing a film unlike the work of anyone else, the Coens have marked themselves down as being unbusinesslike, difficult and even vaguely un-American.

After Blood Simple, the Coen brothers took a deal with 20th Century Fox whereby the big studio would finance and distribute them for three pictures. The brothers seem to have retained every freedom they wanted (in writing and casting), as long as the budgets were modest. The results were ambivalent: Raising Arizona (1987); Miller's Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991).

Don't misunderstand: nothing about the results on screen was in doubt. Those three films demonstrated that the brothers had a vision in which American and movie archetypes quickly turned surreal and crazy. This was real movie-making, and in Miller's Crossing, a brilliantly poised pastiche of the gangster world of Dashiell Hammett, you also got a sardonic, veiled portrait of the scoundrel days of the second Reagan administration. Miller's Crossing was that rarity, a genre film that easily spoke to the moral confusion of its day. For me, it is still the finest film the Coens have made (Fargo runs it close), if only because of the brilliant use of period in a manner free from nostalgia or cosiness, and because of the panorama of portraits of greed, self-interest and treachery in which no one was "likeable". You can argue that the "likeability" of characters is the essential betrayal American movies have made of reality.

It was also apparent in Miller's Crossing that the Coens' world view was not of "lead" characters, but of a mass of supporting figures who all wanted to be leads. So the film is rich in unsentimental acting - not just Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney, but Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Jon Polito, JE Freeman, Steve Buscemi and all the way down the cast list. Indeed, the Coens were interested in everyone, and it showed.

Others have favoured Raising Arizona, in which Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter were strange redneck lovers who kidnap one of a set of quintuplets because they can't have a baby of their own, or Barton Fink, in which John Turturro played an innocent screenwriter in Hollywood about to be engulfed by the hellish power of fantasy. The reviews were very supportive: Barton Fink even won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes festival (the Coens have been favourites there ever since), and their films generally do well on the European art-house circuit. But again, that doesn't win you confidence in the US.

The three Fox films did mixed business. Raising Arizona cost $6m * * and grossed $22.8m in the US - very nice, thank you. But Miller's Crossing cost $14m, and it only grossed $5m. (That's what can happen if you insist on a tough tone.) Barton Fink went the same way: it cost $9m and grossed $6m. If you added the three Fox films up, they cost $29m and grossed $33m. Those are not happy-making numbers.

You could argue, as the Coens did, that they were three amazing movies that had not made a direct loss - certainly not if you added in foreign box-office and then video revenue. But that money is more distant in Hollywood's eyes, and Fox clearly took the view that the Coens were problematic and unlikely ever to turn into the people who would give you a warm, crowd-pleasing, uncomplicated blockbuster.

I'm sure that, in those years, the Coens were offered a lot of that kind of material - franchise films on which they could clean up big if they just made the picture the way the studio wanted. Their record is the proof of the kind of answer they gave. For one picture, they went over to Warner Brothers to do The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), which was not just a commercial disaster, but the least coherent of their movies.

In the 10 years since then, they have been independent, yet also wanderers in the outback. This means that they have to do all the business of money-raising and deal-making themselves, and though they still operate beneath Hollywood budget averages, their films have become more expensive.

As it happens, their next picture was the most interesting of the lot: for Fargo (1996), they went back to the Minnesota of their own upbringing. Again, it was a dark portrait of human failure (just think of the malfunctioning wrecks presented by William H Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell and Peter Stormare). But, as never before, the Coens had given us someone to like in the form of Marge, the local policewoman, as played by Frances McDormand.

Some had said already that McDormand was the trump card in the Coen pack, but this was the first time they had given her a lead or trusted her dogged, sour warmth. It paid off: filmed for only $7m for the small distributor Gramercy, Fargo grossed $24.5m in America, and it won Oscars for their screenplay and for McDormand. (The best picture award was lost to The English Patient, but I suspect it was a close call.)

It seemed like a moment of triumph, achieved without any compromise. There must have been many suggestions that the brothers had wandered inadvertently into their own franchise. Why not Marge II, or Marge Goes to Minneapolis - Marge Against the Mafia, even?

No dice. Since Fargo, they have made only one more picture with McDormand (The Man Who Wasn't There), and their immediate comeback, The Big Lebowski, had a wistful sense of the stupid self-sufficiency of men. It is a very droll film, but it was the first sign of a potentially fatal boyishness. And it barely broke even. They did much better with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which was a cunning re-working of themes from Preston Sturges, one of the directors who seems to have influenced the brothers and another case of early burn-out.

Since then, they have done The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), a painfully studied homage to film noir in which the photography becomes a leading character in the picture. McDormand starred in that in a role worse than the one she had had in Blood Simple, but the film cost $20m and earned $7.5m. Then came Intolerable Cruelty, a project that was a lot more expensive because it elected to go with the "glamour" of George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones: it cost $60m and made $35m, and it left very few critics happy. And now, most recently, there is Tom Hanks in The Ladykillers - to which most reviewers and audiences have responded: "Why?"

What it amounts to is that, despite Fargo, the Coen brothers at or close to 50 are still uncertain quantities in Hollywood. Yes, they might hit the jackpot, but not for aiming at it. And even their fans, I think, have grown wary. The Big Lebowski, I would suggest, is the last time the brothers seem to have made one of their films without restraint - and that was patently a movie likely to please a very small audience. It cannot be easy for them now to raise the money for a project, and maybe they have used up a lot of the best ideas they had. The Man Who Wasn't There, especially, looked like a forlorn descent into style for style's sake. The detached view of wicked people seemed stale and automatic.

Is it even possible that what was once their great strength - their being brothers - is now a liability? Do they criticise or challenge each other? Which one of them can say: "You know, we're marking time, we haven't really grown older and wiser?" Or is the steady company of brothers a fond, protective dead end?

As I've tried to make clear, these films could be the sour fruits of their own stubborn and independent natures - and woeful proof of how difficult it is to sustain a career in American movie-making in a culture where the audience is so coddled by bad education, bad politics and happy-go-lucky shopping habits that it isn't trained to recognise the harsh, warped madcaps the Coen brothers see inhabiting America.

You can argue that the brothers have made their mark already. That's true - and Preston Sturges is alive and well on the strength of a handful of films. Still, it will be sad if the day comes when a new Coen brothers film is regarded as irrelevant or tame. Is it possible that the brothers need a battle, a falling-out, to avoid that dead end? So many great American films - from On the Waterfront to East of Eden, from The Godfather to Raging Bull - turn on sibling rivalry.

'The Ladykillers' opens on 25 June


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