Director Versus- The Coen Brothers

‘The movie people let us play in the corner of the sandbox and leave us alone. We’re happy here’. – Ethan Coen

In this installment of Director Versus, we examine two of the many Coen brothers’ critically and commercially successful films, 1996’s Fargo and 2010’s re-adaptation of True Grit, based on the American novel of the same name, (much more so than the John Wayne original was). Known for their often bizarre style of humour and black comedy, as well as their knack for being able to interchange this in an instant with intensely thrilling dramatic cinema, the Coens have proven that they are in complete control behind the camera, even if sometimes, it looks far from it.

Frances McDormand bundled up in police uniform in a scene from the film 'Fargo', 1996. (Photo by Gramercy Pictures/Getty Images)

Enter Fargo, one of the Coens’ most critically acclaimed films, and rightly so. In it, we see William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard hire two crooks (played brilliantly by Peter Stomare and the ever-great screen presence of Steve Buscemi) to kidnap his wife, with both parties getting a split of her rich father’s ransom money. Things quickly spiral out of control thanks to the ineptitude of the three, beginning a brilliantly written, excellently macabre thriller. Indeed Fargo deserves praise for its utterly seamless blend of black comedy and cold murder drama. How do the Coens do this? With farce, style, and an excellent screenplay that knows exactly what it is and plays to it, with its juxtaposition of the intensity of the criminal acts with the blandness and bleakness of the landscape and people involved. “A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere” was one of the film’s taglines, and it sits perfectly with the crazy-getting-crazier, bloody-getting-bloodier nature of the film.

Frances McDormand’s heavily pregnant, hilariously stereotyped rural police officer is as funny as she is tenacious.

The acting too, is spectacular, and really all four of the main cast stand out and steal each other’s limelight, but two in particular are exceptional. Frances McDormand’s heavily pregnant, hilariously stereotyped rural police officer is as funny as she is tenacious, and does a fantastic job at making the viewer care an awful lot about the side of the story that we’re not first introduced to, not so much easing us in but adding to the madness. Indeed the Coen’s can take the credit for creating the character and the situation, but McDormand brings it to life with comedic precision, also helping to intensify the dramatic moments of her thread of the tale. The other cast member who stands out is Steve Buscemi, who plays one of the kind-of-fake kidnappers who turn out to actually be kidnappers once everything goes pear-shaped. Peter Stormare also gives an excellently understated performance, but something just clicks with the Coens and Buscemi, in Fargo and in their other works such as Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski. Perhaps it’s because Steve Buscemi at this time was at the height of his typecast as the often weird, often creepy, often criminal character – a typecast which slots very neatly into what the Coens do so well. Much like his other roles, Coen and otherwise, you very much hate him but simultaneously very much love him, and Fargo proves this more than anything.

True-Grit-image-103921

True Grit on the other hand, saw a slight departure of what the Coens were typically known for – not as much of a departure as the chilling No Country For Old Men, but a departure nonetheless. A classic western story of redemption, it sees three unlikely partners (a young girl, a mildly drunk U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger,) team up to either capture or kill – the subject of many an argument in the film – a dangerous, orphan-making outlaw played by Josh Brolin. Brolin is perhaps the weakest of the bunch – but this does not mean the performance is bad by any standard; Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and a young Hailee Steinfeld are all excellent and really are the stars of the show. It is a manhunt film, after all, and what the Coens do brilliantly is, unlike in say, Fargo, is only show one side of the story, so that the audience is as lost as the characters are. This device helps to pull the viewer in, making the third act even more impressive. As mentioned earlier, it is not the most Coen-brothers-y film in existence, but it certainly shows that the Coens can make great, thrilling films regardless of the genre and style that they choose. It is not without Coen-esque moments, such as “the man in the bearskin” sequence, but equally it is not as mad as say, the whole of The Big Lebowski is. Then again, neither is Fargo. But True Grit does seem to lack some of those really distinct and memorable Coen brothers moments that Fargo did have – the wood chipper scene, anyone? That’s not to say of course that True Grit is anything less of a film because of this, in fact it shows that the Coens are not just masters of their craft but of cinema-craft as a whole, and can make a gripping, enthralling story out of anything, regardless of how zany or quirky it may or indeed may not be.

But in the end, it does seem that Fargo is the better film of the two. (It is also far more of a typical Coen brothers film than True Grit is, but this is beside the point.) Simply put, Fargo is a more enjoyable experience because of the fabulous cocktail of Coens’ direction, the gripping plot and the cast’s near perfect performances. It has an unexpected and quaint charm to it, a warmth amongst the cold – a warmth that True Grit, perhaps intentionally, lacks.

By Oliver Rowe

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