Director In Focus: The Coen Brothers

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Joel Coen, who was born November 29, 1954, and Ethan Coen, born September 21, 1957, came to prominence in the early 80s as American filmmakers. The “A Coen Brothers film”, stamp that prefaces their work has come to be known as one of genuine quality, that goes hand in hand with strong motifs, symbolism, and unconventional characters and plots. For directors that began in the 1980s, the Coen Brothers remain at the top of their game, with over 15 films to their name across 30 years, with 2016 being host to their latest film Hail, Caesar!

The Coen Brothers released two films, Blood Simple and Crimewave, before creating Raising Arizona, perhaps the first film to bring their talents to light. Raising Arizona also saw the early appearance of Nicolas Cage, before he was internationally recognised after his performance in Leaving Las Vegas. The Brothers subsequently released Miller’s Crossing in 1990, which proved to be a critical success, yet a box office flop. Miller’s Crossing shows elements of film-noir, and references to many old gangster films, while in a backdrop of the harsh and bleak life of a gangster in the Prohibition era, and was highly acclaimed, managing to redeem its box office failure with video and DVD revenue, after its praise post-release.

Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy seemed to follow the same pattern, of failing at the box office while maintaining the interest and approval from critics. It was not until 1996 and 1998 with the release of Fargo, and The Big Lebowski that the Coen Brothers would achieve a critical and box office boom. Fargo received two Academy Awards, with Frances McDormand (Joel Coen’s wife) receiving Best Actress, and the brothers themselves receiving an award for Best Original Screenplay. The Big Lebowski was not as well received, however still a hugely successful film, and both The Big Lebowski and Fargo were added to The National Film Registry, for films deemed to be “cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance.”

In 2007, the release of No Country for Old Men saw the Coen Brothers rise once again, with four Academy Awards, a Best Adapted Screenplay awarded to the duo for their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. The film raked in $74,283,000, and became the highest box office success for the Coens. This was until 2010, with their release of True Grit which totalled to approximately $250 million at the box office.

The success of the Coen Brothers is perhaps down to their persistence, and their affinity for genre-busting films. While a few of their films have been box office flops, their style of filmmaking and writing has not changed as a result, they remain true to their idiosyncratic characters and plots, and while their films can be expected and followed, they can certainly not be predicted.

Did you know?

  • Joel used to get sole credit for directing their films, even though Ethan was heavily involved in almost every aspect as well. Finally, in 2004, they changed the credits to include both of them as directors on The Ladykillers.
  • Both brothers say Stanley Kubrick is their favourite filmmaker.
  • The Brothers used the alias Roderick Jaynes as the editor of some of their films, to avoid their films appearing tacky, or egocentric.

The Films You Should Watch: Fargo, arguably the finest Coen Brothers film according to critics. The Big Lebowski equally as brilliant, however far more absurd and hilarious. Raising Arizona is also an early one that is often forgotten, but definitely should not be.

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