The Coen Brothers. When the final credits roll on their career, these guys are going to be ranked among the all-time great American filmmakers with Scorcese, Spielberg, Welles, and that terrible racist innovator, Griffith. Especially since the early 90s, the Coens have been incredibly productive, versatile, and worthwhile. How fucking funny is The Big Lebowski? How troubling is Fargo? How chilling is No Country for Old Men? (That Oscar for “Best Picture” is really a “Career Oscar” because the Academy couldn’t squeak one out for any of their earlier, better works.) How unexpected, but welcome, was that performance by Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Hell, I could’ve just been setting you up for Hanks in The Ladykillers too.) How brave of them to try their hand at a more commercially pleasing Intolerable Cruelty? (Yeah, I went there.) And don’t get me started on their lesser-known, under-praised, but quality works like the witty The Hudsucker Proxy and the subtle The Man Who Wasn’t There.
With their remake of True Grit on the horizon, I thought it fitting that I point out to you, my noble, addicted reader, an observation that I’ve been making for years now regarding the recurring theme of all of their pictures. Each one of the Coen Brothers’ features features (See what I did there?) a character or a group, who are on a winding search for something more than what they already possess and are not entitled to. This is key because their excessive desires are the impetus of, if not merely the main conflict of the story, then certainly these characters’ downfalls.
Fargo‘s spineless Jerry Lundegaard sets up a kidnapping of his own wife so that he can take the ransom money he assumes his wealthy father-in-law will pay so that he, Jerry, can cover up his recent embezzlement from the car dealership where he is employed under the ownership of said father-in-law.
In No Country For Old Men, financially challenged Llewelyn Moss discovers drug money left behind after a deal gone bad and after ever-so-briefly contemplating whether to take the loot or not, he does, which garners the attention and relentless stalking of whom many critics believe is in fact death incarnate.
A Serious Man features Larry, a physics professor pondering the meaning of and desire for life, who considers taking bribe money from an Asian-American student for a passing grade in his class and thinks about sleeping with his sexy neighbor despite technically still being married to a woman who has mothered his 13-year-old stoner son and plastic surgery-obsessed daughter.
Ed “The Barber” of The Man Who Wasn’t There suddenly becomes dissatisfied with his lackluster life and decides too to embezzle money from his own wife’s boss so that he can go into the mysterious dry cleaning business with a cooky, falsely-coiffured stranger, while also “managing” an underwhelmingly talented, but hot, horny, and underage pianist.
There’s a plethora of characters who fit this bill in Burn After Reading: the gym employees looking for either CIA or Russian money for their discovered diskette, the agent who’s writing a memoir that only he would read, the agent’s cheating wife seeks a divorce, and there’s the guy she’s cheating with who is a serial internet dater (and throw in the sexual tension between the gym manager and the aforementioned female worker).
You’ve got casino robbers in The Ladykillers, the questionable loyalty of a mob underling, Tommy, in Miller’s Crossing, the gold-digger of Intolerable Cruelty, and the greedy board of directors in The Hudsucker Proxy.
In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Everett escapes from prison with two other inmates in tow so that he can get home to his since remarried wife, while two imbeciles kidnap a member of baby quintuplets because he won’t be missed with all the other infants still in their rightful cribs in Raising Arizona.
I know you’re thinking that The Dude doesn’t fit here. Despite the love I have for the protagonist of The Big Lebowski and the fact that he may “not abide,” I must include him among this list of kidnappers, robbers, convicts, mobsters, executives, and used car salesmen alike because he was pretty stoked about the idea of getting all that money for the dubious drop-off. Plus, poor Donnie, after taking all of Walter’s shit throughout the film, had to suffer that tragic heart attack when the nihilists showed up at the bowling alley looking for “ze money.” No, no, this wasn’t just about getting the rug that “really tied the room together” back.
You’ll notice that in all of the works that at least lean towards the genre of “drama,” these characters who share the fatal flaw of having excessive desire are part of a rather unhappy ending. Tommy loses everything. Jerry goes to jail. Though very ambiguous, the ending of A Serious Man (when a fucking tornado suddenly shows up) could include the deaths of Larry and half of his town. The rest of the characters just outright die.
Viewers are to learn from these films that people must avoid too much fancy because inevitably the undeserved object of their desire will never be in their possession. And their obsession can potentially lead to grave consequences.
Naturally, the comedies have to end on a happy note. Everett gets his wife back. Ed and Hi avoid jail. Miles and Marilyn end up together. And The Dude…”Things seemed to work out pretty good for The Dude…” However, the inciting incidents of all the comedies, just as in the dramas, come about because the protagonist wants something exceedingly considerable, thus causing conflict.
I looked up the plot summary of True Grit and to no surprise of this astute movie viewer, once again the topic is “excessive desire” as a farm girl, who is a whole 14 years old, seeks revenge against her father’s murderer by hiring a well-known, tough marshal. “Tough” seems to indicate that he’s killed some men before (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1403865/plotsummary). Perhaps her motives here are justifiable, but surely one of the tension-building plot points will be the question surrounding her age and whether or not she should be taking part in their precarious pilgrimage to vengeance. I guess when we hit the theaters on or around December 22nd, we can expect more of the same from the Brothers Coen.