For over 25 years the sibling duo of Joel and Ethan Coen have amassed a body of work that has defined them as true auteurs of western cinema – and are frequently considered among the best working today – with many of their films praised critically for their direction, writing, music and characterisation. What makes the Coens great filmmakers is their unique and subversive ability to mix complex characters with wonderfully bleak backdrops and escalating moments of tension. They have a refined, studious approach that I find simply unforgettable and gratifying to experience. With prime cuts in their catalogue like Barton Fink, Fargo, No Country For Old Men & Inside Llewyn Davis to name a few, the Minnesota natives continue to craft some of Hollywood’s most thoughtful, distinctive and entertaining films.
To commemorate the 62nd birthday of Joel Coen, here are 6 of the finest scenes in the Coen brothers’ filmography.
Fargo – The Kidnapping
1996’s Fargo is praised prominently for its black humour-laced dramatics, it is arguably the Coens’ defining work. And the film is in abundance of these classic hallmarks. But a standout moment is undoubtedly the disturbingly hilarious and bumbling kidnapping of Jean Lundegaard.
With husband Jerry awaiting for confirmation from Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), Jean is oblivious as she watches daytime TV whilst knitting, before the petty crooks for hire arrive at the house and unashamedly make their way in. But a fateful hand-biting leads to an unforeseen turn of events unfold…
Burn After Reading – The Closet
Burn After Reading, whilst not as steeped in urgency as much as the Coens’ earlier work Fargo, is highlighted by some broad comedic turns from traditionally dramatic actors – namely George Clooney, John Malkovich and Brad Pitt (see our retrospective feature on Mr Pitt’s best performances here).
Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) shortly arrives at the home of his lover Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), unaware of the presence of Chad (Pitt) – who fears that Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) has stumbled on his attempts to retrieve more classified CIA information to further his and Linda’s (Frances McDormand) blackmail proposal. Chad flees to the bedroom, wrought with panic and fear of his discovery and subsequently hides in the closet as Harry showers in the en-suite bathroom. The scene is a wonderful combination of tension, anxiety and of course exquisitely timed comedy.
Inside Llewyn Davis – The Dinner Table
An insightful peek into the challenges of artists in the New York Folk scene. Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis, shortly after finding the Gorfeins’ presumed lost cat, is invited to join them with their dinner guests when he returns with kitty in tow. Davis, somewhat troubled and reeling with the revelation from Jean (Carey Mulligan) that she plans to abort their recently conceived baby, coupled with his struggles as a musician and his grief over the loss of his musical partner, Mike – is requested to play a song for the guests.
After Mrs Gorfein, overcome by Llewyn’s interpretation of ‘Fare Thee Well’, chimes in to harmonise – Llewyn’s composure fails him.
True Grit – The River
Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), previously advised by Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to not follow him in his pursuit of Chaney, hastily arrives at the river pass for the Choctaw Nation to catch up with the lawman. Where she is met by a man tasked to ensure she is led away and delivered to the sheriff. Mattie however uses his guile and determination to break away and makes for the river atop her horse, Blackie. Rooster & LeBoeuf (Matt Damon) meanwhile, observing from the other side, watch open-mouthed in awe as Mattie and Blackie cross the river, completely undeterred.
Laden with Carter Burwell’s beautifully uplifting and swooping score – we see Mattie’s unfazed, uncompromised courage in her desire to find her father’s killer – a true grit, as it were. And in true Coen brothers’ style, Rooster has quite the unexpected reaction…
The Big Lebowski – The Homework
Forever my all-time favourite film, The Big Lebowski has become a renowned Coen cult classic. Presided by a memorable performance from Jeff Bridges as ‘The Dude’. Its larger than life characters, and tongue in cheek reactions to grim and desperate scenarios have become some of the most frequently quoted in film fandom.
There’s no larger than life character in Lebowski, than Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak (a defining turn from John Goodman). Whilst The Dude could be considered the moral compass during challenging times throughout the film, his counterpart Walter is short-fused, embittered and blissfully unflinched. After Dude is reunited with his stolen car (sans the money entrusted to him by David Huddlestone’s ‘Big’ Lebowski), he discovers a piece of homework belonging to a Larry Sellers. With Walter joining him, they pay the family home a visit – Sobchak decked out in his Sunday best in order to intimidate the youngster, whilst Dude comfortably takes a more contradictory approach. The ironic punchline of this scene is pure magic.
No Country For Old Men – The Dreams
This closing scene, from the Oscar-winning neo-Western Noir No Country For Old Men, is highlighted with a monologue from Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who recounts to his wife two dreams he had of his father the previous night. Bell, overwhelmed by prior events and visibly uneased by the depravity and dark depths men will go to – Reveals through one of his dreams a subconscious belief that there is a purer, lighter and warmer world waiting, one familiar to him. But his closing lines reflect how he now must accept that the world to which he once was accustomed, a world where the goodness of mankind and their propensity to demonstrate moral values, has changed. It simply is as the title suggests.
It is truly an affective and relatable moment in the film. And is perhaps one of the most poignant from the Coens.
Are there any other scenes from the Coens’ filmography that stand out for you? Leave a comment below and tell us your favourites!
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