The Dualists; Misanthropic Tendencies from the Coen Brothers

(Originally written in 2014) When looking at current filmmakers who are masterful satirists one must put the Coen brothers at the top of the list. The Coen brothers attention to detail and unique characterizations have created some of the most memorable scenes in modern cinema. However, I have noticed a peculiar trend in many of their later films with how they construct scenes and develop characters. For one, it’s hard not to notice a complete lack of affection or sympathy towards the characters they create. Let’s first look at the strange climactic moment in No Country for Old Men when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), whom we follow for the entire film, is killed. He’s not only killed off screen, but we’re not even sure exactly how it happens. This is disorientating because any sympathy or catharsis is emphatically interrupted. In fact, his death almost goes unnoticed as the film continues on without him. Hitchcock does something similar in Psycho with Janet Leigh; we follow her for a good portion of the film and then after her murder, we begin following Norman Bates. The difference though is that with Hitchcock we see Leigh’s last gasp for life. In fact, in his famous shot, we are forced to look directly into Leigh’s eye. The way the Coen brothers film (or don’t film) Llewelyn’s death and the circumstances around it, makes it seem like his death is inconsequential and without meaning. Why would such experts of characterization do this? I would argue it is because Llewelyn’s death doesn't mean anything. They have constructed the movie much in the same way Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) moves from one victim to the other, with calculation and attention to detail, but void of any emotion.

We see this again in Fargo. There is a clear delineation between good and evil, yet notice how each is presented. Evil, while not exactly intelligent as represented by Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), it is certainly complicated and disturbing. We have to reference nothing more than the famous wood chipper scene. On the other hand, goodness or innocence in the film, represented by Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and the townspeople of Brainerd, never moves beyond simple cliché. It is shameless (and I think quite telling) in how often the Coen brothers rely on the accents of Minnesota dialect with "Don’t ya know” and “You betcha” for humor. The result of this makes the townspeople of Brainerd and Marge as well into simple-minded caricatures. Goodness prevails within the plot of the story, but you wonder what the Coen brothers really think. When a pregnant Marge captures Gaear, a ruthless killer, and is giving him a good talking to, we’re not sure if we are supposed to laugh or listen up:
So, I guess that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the woodchipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, ya know. Don't you know that? And here you are; and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't understand it.
Is this meant to be taken seriously? If so then why does the camera cut to show a bleak, grey sky and a snowy, ice laden landscape when she mentions “a beautiful day”? Maybe it’s meant to show her eternal optimism, yet when the scene gets a laugh, I would argue it makes her look foolish, entirely undermining her credibility. The Coen brothers seem to keep the audience caught between either finding Marge and the townspeople from Brainerd endearing or seeing them as objects of ridicule and mockery. Why is this? To complicate matters even more, their representation of evil never once retreats into cliche and remains a haunting force in one’s imagination long after the film is over. I think this uneven representation of good and evil in the film, creates a happy ending that feels false because it seems that the Coen brothers are more interested in laughing at their characters than garnering our sympathy.

To illustrate this point more clearly, I think it would be beneficial to take a quick look at director Alexander Payne’s work. Likewise, his films are replete with characters he doesn’t seem to like, and while these scenes are amusing on the surface, and effective in creating a “cringe moment,” it is what we are cringing at that’s the problem. There is nothing wrong with putting characters in embarrassing or even humiliating circumstances. Cringe moments can act as high drama and I think are the basis of many of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, and more recent work like Bridget Jones Diary and its sequel. The Bridget Jones’ films are filled with embarrassing moments, and in fact act as the film’s main points of conflict. They are effective because we identify with Jones on screen so when something embarrassing happens to her, it happens to us. The main character and audience alike are all embarrassed together which in turn creates this unique communal, cathartic experience. Now contrast this with the famous (infamous?) cringe moment in Payne’s film About Schmidt when a nude Kathy Bates gets into the hot tube with Jack Nicholson. It is an embarrassing moment, yet notice the tone of the scene. Unlike with Bridget Jones, we in no way identify with Bates. Consequently, we cringe not at the embarrassing situation, but at her. I notice a similar technique in NBC’s The Office. The writing is superb and the show is rich with satire. Yet, notice how the characters of Jim and Pam are always outside of the jokes per se. With their knowing looks to the camera, you are forced to identify with them, and thus, as they do, see everyone else as a fool. Even when Jim or Pam are nice or go along with one of Michael’s harebrained ideas, they do so still knowing that the ideas are ridiculous, yet they reluctantly proceed, martyr-like, to placate and/or protect Michael and the others. By having Jim and Pam be our tour guide through the madness, the audience is always one degree away from it. Because Jim and Pam do not seem to respect or actually like anyone in the office, we are inclined to feel the same way, which then interrupts any sense of connection or identification. In About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson is our tour guide and we identify with him and his annoyance, which makes Kathy Bates a perfect target of our derision.

I am not sure if Payne or the Coen brothers do this on purpose, but it undermines them as storytellers because you can never fully trust what they are revealing to you. It is one thing to remain neutral or uninvolved as a storyteller. It is quite another to be cruel to your characters. One has to go no further than the scene in Fargo when Grimsrud and Showalter have kidnapped Jean the wife of Jerry Lundegaard. She is blindfolded and has her arms tied, and when she starts to run, she falls down because she's disoriented. Gaear watches her and laughs at how feeble she seems. It is a cruel and heartless scene and while arguably is created under the guise of the villains being cruel, one has the sneaking suspicion that the Coen brothers are getting a chuckle as well. If this is so, then like with Llewelyn in No Country, her death doesn't really matter and any tension is immediately lost. If the writers don’t care about their characters, why should the audience? Maintaining a sympathy for one’s character is paramount as a storyteller. Without it, the work seems more like a passive aggressive inside joke than a well-crafted story about complex individuals.