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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

February 20, 2019: Film Non-Favorites: The Coen Brothers

[For my annual Valentine’s follow-up, I wanted to keep the FilmStudying going and highlight some non-favorite filmmakers and films. Share your own non-favorites, film or otherwise, for what is always the most fun crowd-sourced post of the year!]
On three contrasts that illuminate the shortcomings of the unique and talented filmmaking duo.
1)      Fargo (1996) and A Simple Plan (1998): The Coens had been making movies for more than a decade by 1996, but I would argue that the multi-Oscar winning Fargo nonetheless elevated them to a new level of cinematic attention and acclaim. Fargo is a smart and entertaining crime and mystery thriller with a dark sense of humor, but for my money it’s inferior to A Simple Plan, another film about crime and punishment amidst a wintry landscape. As I wrote in that last hyperlinked post, Plan is incredibly thematically rich, with threads about class and poverty, multi-generational family inheritances and legacies, the American Dream and its dark undersides, and more. But it also has something that I didn’t quite find in Fargo (or, if I’m honest, in most Coen films I’ve had the chance to see): a beating human heart and a deep sense of sympathy for its characters, even (maybe especially) when they’re at their worst.
2)      O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Mudbound (2017): This is a closer and tougher one, as O Brother is a very engaging and likable film, with a marvelous turn by George Clooney at its heart, and it even manages to adapt The Odyssey in the Depression-era American South quite successfully. But I would also argue that it has a central weakness, one shared by too many films about the white South: that it takes histories of race and racial violence (including a prominent role for the Ku Klux Klan) and turns them into plot developments for its mostly white protagonists. For that reason, I would always make the case for the rare films that tell those stories of race and the South with more breadth, depth, and nuance, and found 2017’s Netflix original film Mudbound to be much stronger in that regard. It’s not a perfect film, and as usual with the Coens Brother is far more sophisticatedly and entertainingly made; but I think the historical and cultural questions are dealt with much more successfully in Mudbound, making it an important complement to Brother at least.
3)      No Country for Old Men (2007) and Hell or High Water (2016): This one is far easier for me, as I think No Country, despite wonderful performances by Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones, is a deeply limited and flawed film. Indeed, I think it succeeds mostly as a sort of high-brow slasher film, with Javier Bardem’s unkillable, single-minded killing machine with a strange but rigid personal code echoing the Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees of the world quite closely. Which is fine as far as it goes, but to my mind not nearly deserving of the praise I’ve seen heaped upon it. And to elucidate my point, I would point to Hell or High Water, a much less acclaimed film that does a much better job capturing its Texas settings and communities, its small-time criminal protagonists and their individual and family identities, and its themes of class and poverty, crime and punishment, and family legacies and changes. Plus it features Jeff Bridges as a Texas Ranger in a performance worthy of putting in conversation with Jones’s, if not even slightly more lived-in and compelling. Which I suppose is my point in this whole post: there’s room to see lots and lots of movies, so by all means let’s keep seeing Coens Brothers’ films; but there are other, and to my mind, better films to see and share as well, is all.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post or other non-favorites you’d share?

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