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The Coen Brothers Movies Not Made by the Coen Brothers

There are movies that are so Coenesque that people mistake them for the real thing.
Three Billboards
By  · Published on November 9th, 2017

There are movies that are so Coenesque that people mistake them for the real thing.

How’s it Coen? That’s not just a bad pun but a question to ask today about the meaning of the term “Coenesque.” There’s an increase in movies scripted but not directed by the Coen Brothers lately, including the not-so-Coenesque historical dramas Unbroken and Bridges of Spies as well as this year’s seemingly Coenesque black comedy Suburbicon. Additionally, we’ve seen Noah Hawley near-perfectly mimic the Coens in his TV series Fargo. And then there are the Coenesque movies that have hardly anything to do with the Coens slipping through the cracks, such as one of this year’s biggest under-performers, Logan Lucky, and one of this year’s Best Picture frontrunners, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Regarding Three Billboards, the movie’s Coenesque qualities start with its casting of Frances McDormand in the lead. Although she’s not limited to working with the Coens, she is definitely associated with them. One of them, Joel, is even her husband. She won her Oscar for her performance in their movie Fargo. Apparently, Joel also was the one who convinced her to “just shut up and do it,” meaning take the part in Three Billboards. A part that writer-director Martin McDonagh wrote for her specifically. But is McDormand’s involvement enough to spark all the Coen comparisons? McDonagh has “poo-pooed” the claims his movie is Coenesque outside of him “stealing one of their greatest assets.” To mistake it for a Coen is to perhaps misunderstand their work and degrade McDonagh’s.

According to the Collins dictionary, Coenesque means “reminiscent of the work of US filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen featuring bizarre and involved plots, use of irony and black humor, and allusions to film classics.” That sounds pretty apt, though for many viewers it’s just about a feeling or superficial elements like shared actors. Suburbicon was initially scripted by the Coens and features a few actors who’ve starred in Coen Brothers movies (Julianne MooreMatt Damon, and Oscar Isaac) and is directed by another (George Clooney), and you can get a sense of some fundamental Coenesque ideas, but ultimately its tone and attempt at more serious social commentary and overdone irony keep it from being mistaken for the real thing.

Trying to find historical instances of the term Coenesque, early usage is mostly found in reviews of actual Coen Brothers movies, and not just on amateur internet sites but in the likes of the Washington Post (see Desson Howe’s take on The Big Lebowski) and the New York Times (David Carr’s review of True Grit). There are also occasional instances of reviews of movies where a Coen regular like John Goodman is said to give a Coenesque performance (see One Night at McCool’s or Gigantic) but maybe that’s really just Goodman-esque at that point, even if his performances have been influenced by his collaborations with the Coens.

There are many scholarly and not-so-scholarly writings on the Coens attempting to define them and the Coenesque adjective. For shorter analysis, check out Taste of Cinema’s “10 Most Distinct Traits of Coen Brothers’ Cinema” and Empire’s “ultimate guide to the Coen Brothers,” which features definitions of Coenesque from Clooney (“violence and absurdity and dingbats”), and fellow Coen movie actors Josh Brolin (“unconscious originality”), Michael Badalucco (“idiosyncratic specificity”), Jeff Bridges (“seeing the unusual in the usual”), Jon Polito (“the familiar seen through new eyes”), and Billy Bob Thornton (“there’s a sense of humor that’s like a club that certain people belong to that gets the joke”).

So what movies not made by the Coen Brothers can be mistaken for their work? Never mind the joking defense by Bill Murray for why he voiced the title character in Garfield being that he confused screenwriter Joel Cohen for Joel Coen. I’ve seen admissions of confusion over various titles, including the thinking that Mouse Hunt was the Coens doing a kids’ movie, as well as mistaking the duo as the directors of The Grand Budapest HotelBlue RuinBad Santa (which they did produce), Red StateThe Informant!, and Hell or High Water. With most of these, I just don’t see it. How is The Grand Budapest Hotel Coenesque? What is it about Hell or High Water except that it stars Bridges and is set in the same part of the world and within the same genre as No Country for Old Men?

It is interesting to see The Informant! among the bunch, because its star, Matt Damon, who at the time hadn’t done an actual Coen Brothers movie (True Grit came out a year later), is in one of this year’s “fake” Coen features, Suburbicon. And because its writer-director, Steven Soderbergh, made another one of this year’s Coenesque works, Logan Lucky. That movie, which shares Adam Driver with the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, was likened by critics to the Coen Brothers comedies Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou? and definitely earns the comparison but is also mainly similar for just being another cartoonish caper, or “hillbilly heist” film. But the genre is not exclusive to the Coens. We saw plenty examples in the ’90s especially.

One of the most underrated, Alan Taylor’s Palookaville, was surprisingly not referred to as Coenesque at the time, despite it coming out the same year the Coens really hit the mainstream with Fargo. The crime comedy even features McDormand and stars her fellow Raising Arizona supporting cast member William Forsythe. While not as dark or ironic as is required of a Coenesque movie, by literal definition, the bumbling criminals and allusion to classic cinema (the trio of robbers are inspired by Armored Car Robbery and the movie clearly pays homage to Big Deal on Madonna Street) can be found here.

Six years later, two other future Marvel directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, made Welcome to Collinwood, an actual remake of Big Deal on Madonna Street. This crime comedy also stars one of the main players from Fargo, William H. Macy, and it features Clooney in a supporting (but headlining) role. Plus actors you’d think have worked with the Coens but never have, namely Luis Guzman, Patricia Clarkson, and Sam Rockwell. Especially Rockwell, who is also in Three Billboards and has worked before with McDonagh and other ’90s-era Coen-adjacent indie filmmakers like Alexandre Rockwell (no relation) and Tom DiCillo.

But if I had to choose the best Coen Brothers movie not made by the Coen Brothers, it’s Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan. Coming out two years after Fargo, the movie brought many, many, many comparisons to Fargo with its snowy Minnesota setting and bungled crime plot, and of course there was a connection in that Raimi was an old friend of the Coens, even collaborating with them early on for Evil DeadBlood SimpleCrimewave, and Darkman. It’s kismet that A Simple Plan star Billy Bob Thornton would later wind up associated with the Coens more through movies and the Fargo series.

More recently, we’ve seen a rise in critics complimenting movies with the Coenesque term. Matt Shakman’s Cut Bank has been likened to Fargo and Blood Simple but is too convoluted a thriller that just happens to star Coen collaborators Thornton, John Malkovich, and Michael Stuhlbarg (plus Oliver Platt from the Fargo series), so obviously there’s an easy link there. That movie is featured on a mostly comprehensive IMDb list of Coenesque movies that also highlights The Big White (featuring Coen collaborators Holly Hunter and Tim Blake Nelson), plus classic movies that influenced the Coens and foreign films they’ve in turn influenced, such as the 2011 Norwegian crime thriller Headhunters.

The list misses other foreign Coenesque movies, particularly the Chinese Blood Simple remake by Zhang Yimou, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop. There’s also the 2014 crime comedy In Order of Disappearance, which we called “a Norwegian Fargo,” and the 2008 Danish drama Terribly Happy, which multiple critics (including our own) claimed was a mix of Coens and David Lynch. Maybe the dark Scandinavian sense of humor is just similar to that of the Coens. And maybe the comparison to such icons of American cinema makes for a good pull quote for movies that would otherwise be hard sells to American audiences.

Given that logic, plus the Coens’ continued status among movie fans, and the success of the Fargo series, we can expect to see more of both Coen-influenced (intently Coenesque) movies as well as critical comparisons to (unintentionally Coenesque) movies. Most notable for the future, though, is John Turturro‘s Going Places, a spin-off of The Big Lebowski starring Turturro reprising his role as Jesus Quintana as well as character actor Michael Badalucco, who appears in a number of Coen Brothers movies. Not only will it welcome comparison but surely there will be some fans who mistake it for the real thing.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.