Essays · Movies

The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers

What are Coen Brothers films all about?
Coen Brothers Lebowski
Gramercy Pictures
By  · Published on July 6th, 2017

“Nihilists. Fuck me. I mean, say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude – at least it’s an ethos.” – Walter Sobchak, The Big Lebowski

The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (Is not this the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the meaning of life became clear to them have been unable to say what constituted that meaning?) – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

To write about the Coen Brothers is to confront, head-on, life’s hardest problem. I’m not talking about the problem of film criticism generally, nor of identifying why Joel and Ethan Coen are among our greatest living filmmakers. These problems, though they confront me presently, are not all that hard. But usually, when one studies a filmmaker, there emerges in the work a distinct perspective on life — a philosophical point of view, which style and story jointly reveal. And although countless words have been spilled on the philosophy of the Coens’ films, no one has yet produced a summary that the Brothers themselves would endorse. Themes and motifs recur, but meanings are elusive. The most one can say is that the work is so meticulously well-crafted that it feels meaningful, even as conclusive statements of purpose escape us. Thus in a Coen Brothers film, as in life, we’re left asking: is all this meaning merely apparent?

Notoriously resistant interview subjects, the Coens have managed to ascend through the ranks of the cinematic canon without ever showing their philosophical hand. They’ve now claimed every accolade: Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Adapted Screenplay; the Palme D’Or, Best Director, and Grand Jury Prizes at Cannes; Best Director from the DGA; Original and Adapted Screenplay from the WGA. Their films have inspired multiple books, including one that explicitly claims to deal with their philosophy. But when pressed for insights about their work, they tend to downplay its significance. one that explicitly claims to deal with their philosophy. But when pressed for insights about their work, they tend to downplay its significance. Asked in 1998 about his philosophy of filmmaking, Ethan replied, “…I don’t have one. I wouldn’t even know how to begin.” Asked in 2001 about his creativity, Joel quipped, “I guess it beats throwing trash for a living.”

So what are we to make of the fact that these masters of the craft claim, or at least imply, that they have nothing to say? One option is to let the work speak for itself. Beginning with their startlingly assured 1984 debut, Blood Simple, the Coens have produced three decades’ worth of highly distinctive work. Their films span many genres and tones, yet all retain the clear signature of their makers. That Coen style, such as it is, has more to do with rhythm, tone, and characterization than visual flair. It’s a feeling of faint tragedy amid the humor or faint humor amid the tragedy. Consider Anton Chigurh’s sardonic use of the word “friendo” for his future victims in No Country for Old Men, or the Folgers tin used to hold Donny’s ashes in The Big Lebowski.

One topic about which the Brothers’ are forthcoming in interviews is the many influences that feed into their work. Although they don’t consider themselves film fanatics of the Tarantino variety, their love of Old Hollywood – noir and screwball in particular – is everywhere on display. 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty is an out-and-out screwball film, while 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? takes its title from Sullivan’s Travels, directed by the great screwball master Preston Sturges. Aided by longtime collaborator Roger Deakins, the Brothers elegantly revived the black-and-white noir in 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. And just last year, they released Hail, Caesar! – a noir-screwball film about Old Hollywood.

Though they’ve made many period pieces, the Coens use the past in much the same way as their genre predecessors, as fantasy rather than historical reality. “It’s not about reminiscence,” they have said, “because our movies are about the past we have never experienced. It’s more about imagination.” Such fantasizing makes the problem of meaning all the more vexing because the Coens can’t be accused of commenting on a history they never claimed to represent. Hail, Caesar! in particular, was accused of ignoring topics like race and gender in the 1950s altogether – a critique that the Brothers rebuffed by claiming this is not how they think of stories. It often seems that the Coens wish their films could be seen in a vacuum, as self-contained pockets of meaning without reference to the larger world.

And yet their two greatest films (at least by award-count) – Fargo and No Country for Old Men – are also among their most realistic. Both films invite the viewer, in their opening sequences, to regard the films as more than mere stories. Fargo bears an opening placard announcing, “This is a True Story” – a choice the brothers made specifically so that audiences “wouldn’t see the movie as just an ordinary thriller.” And Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in No Country concludes his opening monologue with the evocative phrase, “OK, I’ll be a part of this world.”

No Country, in particular, is worth dwelling on, not only because it’s a perfect piece of filmmaking, but also because it provides insight into the brothers’ ambivalence about meaning. Ed Tom Bell’s speech at the film’s opening expresses a fear that the Coens seem to share: namely that, if he agrees to engage with the violence and tragedy of the world, it may overcome him. It may force him to say, as he does, “I don’t know what to make of that.” Similarly, it would seem that the more of the real world’s senselessness they allow into their work, the harder it might become for the Coens to make meaning. Such meaning might not be there at all.

Of late, the Coens appear to be rebounding back and forth between addressing and ignoring this problem. No Country was followed by the farcical Burn After Reading. A Serious Man, the Coens’ most direct treatment of meaninglessness, gave way to True Grit, a downright pious film. And Inside Llewyn Davis, which directly mocks art’s pretensions of meaning, was followed by Hail, Caesar!, which embodies that very mockery, by being (seemingly) meaningless itself. If the trend holds, we should expect the Coen’s next outing to tackle the question of meaning head-on once more, trying again to be a part of this world.

There is wisdom to be found, perhaps unsurprisingly, in The Big Lebowski. Many mistook that film’s sage ethos of acceptance for nihilism, but the Coens resisted this label. “For us, the nihilists are the bad guys,” Joel told Michael Ciment and Hubert Niogret in 1998, “and if there’s a preferred moral position, it’d be that of Jeff Bridges, though it’s difficult to define!” Though they’ve grown to doubt it in recent films, the Dude’s fluid perseverance – his abidance, as it were – might be a solution to the specter of nihilism that haunts the Coens. Not unlike Marge Gunderson’s down-home goodness in Fargo, it does not oblige one to make sense of the horrors of the world – only to persist in being good despite them.

Jeff Bridges summarized it well: “I think [The Big Lebowski]’s a film about grace, how amazing it is that we’re all allowed to stay alive on this speck hurled out into space, being as screwed up as we all are. Like, Fargo had a moral resonance to it. This one, I think, does as well. It may not be apparent to most people at first. But working in it, kind of bathing in this thing, it rang for me. It’s not a real clear thing that you can say, ‘That’s what it means.’ It’s a little different.” Perhaps we can say, then, that the Coens’ philosophy is summarized in the Wittgenstein quote above (Ethan wrote his thesis at Princeton on Wittgenstein). Or, less pretentious, and more concise: “The Dude Abides.”

Writer, filmmaker.