The Coen Bros. Game - Baseball Style
I've seen a lot of movies. Fewer than some, but more than most. And I'm a completist by nature. When I like a musician or an author or a movie director, my impulse is to enjoy all of their work. WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD
Except at some point I realized that all of their work wasn't enjoyable. I'm a GIGANTIC Elvis Costello fan, but I haven't bought one of his records in more than a decade. I grew up obsessed with Stephen King, but today I'll read maybe half of his novels. And there's some Alfred Hitchcock that's just never interested me.
The Coen Brothers, though ... I've seen everything they've done. I just felt like I had to, and so I have. All 16 of their feature-length movies. Sometime in the last year or so, I made a list of my favorite filmmakers, and noted a) how many of their movies I've seen, and b) how many of their movies are great.
By my lights, I mean. I could have found some ratings somewhere, and come up with a systematic way of judging greatness. Maybe I will, someday. But so far, it's just been me eyeballing a filmography and counting the movies I loved.
And when I did that, I was drawn to the conclusion that, by at least one measure, the Coen Bros. are the greatest American (or U.S.-based) filmmakers. Why? Because of their 16 films, I love (roughly) 13 ... and that .813 batting average is the best in my experience.
Granted, I haven't seen every Hitchcock movie or every Scorsese movie or every Woody Allen movie or every anybody else's movie. But generally speaking, the ones I've missed are the ones that are not usually listed among their best. So I don't think I've missed many great ones.
Granted, Woody Allen's probably made 18 or 20 great movies ... but he's churned out a bunch of forgettable ones, too. I love Scorsese ... and yet I can't argue that he's made more than 9 or 10 great movies. Hitchcock misfired nearly as often as he hit. Who else? John Ford? Who knows. He made dozens and dozens of pictures we never see. Billy Wilder was pretty great. But you know, 13 out of 16 ... that's pretty hard to beat. Or 12 out of 16, if you prefer. Maybe 11. Considering these guys make a movie every year or two, they're still fairly young for their profession, and they're still at the top of their game ... So I say if they're not the greatest ever now, they will be within a decade.
Which makes the Coen Bros. Game all the more interesting!
As everyone knows, the Coen Bros. Game is just ranking every Coen Bros. movie, 1 through 16. Which of course is possible only because so many film nerds have seen all 16 of them. Which is why I've asked four of my favorite baseball fans and cinephiles -- Ben Mankiewicz, Craig Calcaterra, Grant Brisbee, and Will Leitch -- for their rankings, to which I added mine on the way to an average list.
Which I'll go ahead and run right now, in case anyone's gotta run:
1. Miller's Crossing
3. No Country for Old Men
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
5. The Big Lebowski
6. Blood Simple
7. Barton Fink
8. A Serious Man
9. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
10. True Grit
11. Raising Arizona
12. The Man Who Wasn't There
13. Burn After Reading
14. The Hudsucker Proxy
15. Intolerable Cruelty
16. The Ladykillers
Here's the thing about that list: It's not surprising! Sure, Raising Arizona does have its supporters. But so do the movies above it, many of which were nominated for this or that Academy Award. What's interesting, to me anyway, are where we as individuals disagree significantly with the average.
Which is why I would like to begin by asking Will ... Why do you care so little for O, Brother? You listed it 15th; Craig was next-lowest at 10th.
Will: I'll confess that O Brother Where Art Thou has always seemed to me like a terrific soundtrack in search of a movie. Occasionally, the Coens will spend so much time nailing down the specific details of the world they're creating that it feels like they skimp on the story: Hudsucker Proxy being another example. O Brother is a great test run for future movies they'd get precisely right. It has the music angle they'd nail in Inside Llewyn Davis, the cheerful doofus (played better by Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading than George Clooney here) and the episodic, shambling plot that makes A Serious Man and also Inside Llewyn Davis so great.
It's also one of their goof movies. The Coen brothers do these every once in a while, when they're just sort of screwing around. Sometimes this leads to something brilliant (The Big Lebowski), sometimes goofy (Burn After Reading) and sometimes they crash and burn (Intolerable Cruelty). O Brother is fine, but it's also weirdly empty and remote. As usual, Ebert got this one exactly right: "I had the sense of invention set adrift; of a series of bright ideas wondering why they had all been invited to the same film."
Rob: I can’t disagree with any of that! But I love the way the movie looks, and where they filmed it, and the obvious homage to Preston Sturges. I wouldn’t call it a goof so much as an exercise … Hey, let’s see if we can make a Preston Sturges movie! Let’s see if we can make a screwball comedy! Let’s see if we can remake a classic British dark comedy.
And as exercises go, I think O Brother works better than the others. For me, it’s right on the borderline of greatness. If it’s great, they’ve made 13 great movies. If not, they’ve made a dozen. And on which side of the line it falls probably depends on my mood.
Now, about real greatness … I was pleased to see that Will listed A Serious Man as the second-greatest Coen Bros. movie. That one’s actually No. 1 on my list. Granted, I haven’t seen it since it came out a few years ago, and maybe I was just in the right mood that evening, with the right company … but I was surprised to see Ben ranking it 13th, and Craig 14th. Would one or both of you care to tell us what you don’t like about my favorite Coen Bros. movie?
Ben: I suspect my reaction to A Serious Man is more emotional than critical, but we are talking about movies, so I get to react however I damn well please. I have A Serious Man 13th -- and I think I have it too high. My overwhelming, decades-long susceptibility to peer pressure knows no bounds. I presumed I’d be mocked if I had it any lower.
Here’s my reasoning: I hated every character in the movie. But only a lot.
Normally, I’d be wiling to watch Michael Stuhlbarg eat oatmeal for 106 minutes. He’s that good. I’d like to see a Boardwalk Empire sequel with Stuhlbarg playing Arnold Rothstein if he’d lived into the 1950s. I’d like to think he’d have had a hand in the CCNY point shaving scandal (By the way, think we’ll get Rothstein’s murder on Boardwalk Empire this season? We have to, right?).
Anyway, back to the matter at hand. I loathed Larry Gopnik. The list of characters I found repellent is long: his wife, her lover, his brother, his kids, their teachers, his rabbis. Even the extras were irritating. I found the movie dark, depressing and humorless. My dad -- the smartest man in the world, by the way -- always told me “you have to have someone to root for” in a movie. Here, there was no one. I was pulling for the tornado at the end. Ironically -- and solid proof that A Serious Man was seriously lost on me -- my dad loved this movie.
All that said, the power of my objection seems a testament to the Coen Bros.’ skill. I saw Sex Tape last night. I’ve already forgotten every character in that entirely empty movie. I suspect the Coen Bros. knew my emotional response to the film was a possibility. Maybe it’s even what they wanted. But if you’re going to give me 106 minutes of mean-spirited gloom, it had better be fun. The Gopniks were never fun.
Craig: I’ll save my thoughts on A Serious Man and move us on to another movie, because Ben took care of most of it. I think I liked Larry a bit more than Ben did -- I’m a Midwestern father myself and there were enough beats I could grok -- but I couldn’t root for anyone there, mostly because I wasn’t clear about the stakes. When it’s a matter of life or death, as in The Man Who Wasn’t There, or success or failure, like in Inside Llewyn Davis, I’m far more likely to forgive an unlikeable character.
Or maybe it’s a matter of genre? Film noir, like The Man Who Wasn’t There, lends itself to unlikables. But I think the 1970s-style character study -- a genre which really lets you get in someone’s skin -- does so even better. And that’s what Davis was, really, even if it was made in these ‘teens and took place in the ‘60s. It features a miserable, selfish, surly sonofabitch but I wanted it to go on for two more hours because it was seriously examining this dude rather than watching him with the confused eye with which the Coens would have us examine Larry.
But let’s move from character and get back to a bit of what Will was hitting on: genre. Because that’s what fascinates me the most about the Coens. Their deftness with so many different ones which, I presume, is the source of their biggest commercial challenges (challenges which often bring them back to the art vs. commerce argument, the sort of which we see in Davis and Barton Fink, for example). I saw Davis in a theater full of people who expected a big broad farce about a beatnik and a cat, because that’s how it was initially marketed. They forced laughter at every opportunity because that’s what they hoped for -- a big, broad, early-’60s Big Lebowski or O Brother Where Art Thou -- when they were instead getting a particularly bleak product. The Coens do both so well but, unlike Woody Allen, they don’t bother to keep them neatly separated by decades for our critical convenience.
Indeed, that’s why I have Fargo at the top of my list. Because it’s the film in which they are the most successful in delivering the funny and the bleak. The broad and the focused. The slice of a narrow or even obscure culture alongside a story about universal motivations like greed and insecurity. Like Rob, I love at least something about all of their movies, but I find myself, over and over again, dividing them up between their genre exercises and their strongest mode, which is delivering some pretty bleak truths about human nature. But their exercises are so much fun, that I want them both. And the better they synthesize those two things, the better I find the film, for the most part.
Rob: Wait a second! I don’t love anything about The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty. Not that I can remember, anyway. But all the others, yes. As for Fargo … Man, did I love that movie the first time I saw it. I’ll bet that I would have ranked it among my dozen or so favorite movies ever. But while I still enjoy it, familiarity has bred a few small shreds of contempt. Some of the accents are a little much. It’s obviously not as cold during some of the scenes as the filmmakers had hoped. It’s funny, though … Yes, the movie’s funny. But now I’m feeling funny about this, as I remember how many scenes are just perfect. Can I change my ranking? No? Okay. I’ll stick with it. I don’t know that Fargo will ever be No. 1 on my list. But it’s a stunning piece of work, and maybe their first fully formed art.
Anyway, you all rated Fargo higher than I did, so let’s shift back to Llewyn Davis for a minute. I loved it nearly as much as Craig; it’s No. 2 on my list. Admission: Yes, I loved the cat … but I’m not a cat guy! I just loved its presence in the story, along with its (granted, at this point theoretical) meaning: Llewyn Davis is the cat. Oh, and the music was tremendous! Just the music alone makes me wonder how Mank (may I call you Mank? I saw that in a movie once) and Grant kept Llewyn Davis out of your top 10. Brisbee, you wanna field this one?
(But first, a musical interlude!)
Grant: There are two important caveats: The first is that my list isn’t set up like a pyramid. It’s not this:
Grant: It’s more like this:
That’s … a Luger, maybe. Diving board? Dunno. I know what’s first on my list. But after that, the movies start getting interchangeable. No Country For Old Men could easily flip with True Grit if I watch it tomorrow. Blood Simple might be No. 4 next month. The top tier is 11 movies deep, and Inside Llewyn Davis is on that tier.
Which brings us to the second caveat: I’ve seen it once. After I watched Miller’s Crossing once, I felt stupid and annoyed. It’s possible that repeat viewings shoot ILD to the top.
What I’m sure of right now is that it didn’t grab me like nine of the 10 above it. With every movie other than Miller’s Crossing, I left the theater/turned off the VCR/stopped the DVD and thought, damn. Depending on the timeline, it was either “Damn, that was different and amazing” or “Damn, they did it again.” With ILD, there was only “I liked that. I think.”
It’s one of the Coens’ you-figure-it-out movies, with A Serious Man and Barton Fink being the other two in my top tier. There are elements of you-figure-it-out in almost all of their movies -- the ending dream in No Country, Moses and the clock in Hudsucker -- but there’s a link for me between A Serious Man, Barton Fink, and ILD, where there are layers and layers of story, occasionally confusing and misdirecting, that build to an ending that’s the cipher key. You’re supposed to take it and decode the rest of the movie.
With Barton Fink, I wanted to start the movie over and look for the “Don’t forget to drink your Ovaltine” immediately, even if it was never going to be that obvious. With A Serious Man, I thought about it for a week, and dug through the Internet for theories. With ILD, I meant to look it up, but I got distracted. Then I followed Rob’s link about the cat, and it didn’t make me want to watch the movie again. The comments underneath it didn’t provoke a response. I don’t think I cared enough about Davis, certainly not like Fink or Gopnik.
My initial problem with Miller’s Crossing is that it lays the slang on thick, and it introduced 3,948 characters into an ornate harp of a plot, some of whom had varying names and nicknames. I got over it with repeated viewings (and reading the script dozens of times at a particularly boring job). The problem with ILD -- and, again, I still liked it -- is that I was pulled by the nostrils to its set of Tinker Toys, but I never felt like building anything. I think I’ve thought of Talladega Nights more since seeing ILD, and I haven’t seen Talladega Nights in at least two years.
Rob: Hey, Talladega Nights is a sort of masterpiece, even without including the DVD extras (but if you include them, now we’re talking Citizen Kane territory).
Moving along to another polarizing masterpiece, though … Mank and I both have Burn After Reading No. 6, while Craig and Will have it 12th … and Grant’s got it 15th! Behind Ladykillers!
Not really. Grant’s got Ladykillers last, just like me and Craig. But I do want to know what so bothers Grant about Burn. Me, I think it’s a brilliant sendup of the banality of “intelligence,” plus I think Brad Pitt should have been nominated for an Academy Award. Seriously. This is one of the suavest, handsomest men on the planet, well past 40 when the movie was shot. And yet somehow he’s utterly believable as an idiotic adolescent in the body of a 27-year-old. This is the same guy who played Billy Beane three years later.
And I’d like to take this chance to point out that in the space of five years, Pitt starred in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Burn After Reading, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Tree of Life, and Moneyball. Outside of John Cazale, I don’t know where you’ll find a better run. And then there’s this, which looks pretty damned incredible.
Anyway, I don’t know that the humor in Burn After Reading really hits the mark as often as it wants to, but I love the characters and how everything comes together, however disastrously for certain individuals, at the end. Especially that last shot …
Craig: Grant can defend his ranking in a second, but let me just note that I liked Burn After Reading just a tad less than its clear intellectual ancestor, The Man With One Red Shoe. Except I will agree that Pitt played his role a tad better than Jim Belushi played the counterpart in the earlier classic.
OK, now I’ll hang up and listen.
Ben: Burn After Reading has grown on me like … (four minutes have now passed and I’m unable to think of anything that I’d actually like to grow on me) … Anyway, I gave Burn mitigated praise when it hit theaters. It was one of the first movies I reviewed when I started co-hosting At The Movies in the fall of 2008. The film criticism world hadn’t started to hate us yet, so I like to refer to those as the good ol’ days. Since then – having seen it again – I kind of love it.
First of all, Grant, ranking it 15th is insane. You realize George Clooney shoots Brad Pitt in the face, right? In. The. Face. It’s among the most shocking deaths of 21st century cinema. Pitt, with his affably moronic grin, taking a bullet to the forehead from Clooney, stunned to find Pitt hiding in his closet.
Pitt is phenomenal – totally agree with Rob here. Burn (I like how we’ve decided Burn is its universally accepted abbreviation) may be his best performance, given in a string of top-tier roles. Since I can be fairly literal in how I absorb a movie, I appreciate that Burn is ABOUT something: nobody has to mention the finagled intelligence of the Iraq war to know that’s the prism through which we’re supposed to see the “intelligence” community.
Despite my praise, I actually think Pitt is outperformed in the movie – and not by likely candidates Frances McDormand, Clooney, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich or Richard Jenkins. But by J.K. Simmons and the David Rasche, who’s batting clean-up in my line-up of great character actors who don’t work enough. That last scene between them is as good as it gets. Writing, pacing, performing. It’s a truly great ending to a vastly underrated Coen Bros. effort. Here’s that last scene:
On to Inside Llewyn Davis. I’m surprised at how it failed to resonate with me. Everybody’s great, the writing is Coen Bros.-sharp and you’re never bored. But I also never quite cared. There’s too much nastiness in it. It was a road picture, but one filled with a few too many pricks.
Also, Rob, there are no cat guys. Anywhere.
And about that cat. Usually, to buttress Grant’s point, I love a movie with an ending you have to decode. You don’t need to spell everything out for me. In fact, please don’t. But the ending of ILD left me frustrated at the unanswered questions. Was The New York Times at the show to see Dylan? Did the critic see Llewyn? Did he like him? Is John Goodman dead? What the fuck happened to the cat?
I saw the movie last year at the Telluride Film Festival and left the movie convinced I was the only guy who didn’t love it. I’m pleased to see I’m not alone.
Two final thoughts: the first on Talladega Nights. Any movie containing the line “This sticker is dangerous and inconvenient, but I do love Fig Newtons” must never be referred to pejoratively (and I haven’t seen the DVD extras).
Finally, you may call me “Mank.” Everyone in our family is eventually called Mank. And it’s the title of the biography of my grandfather, Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote Citizen Kane, which, as Rob wrote, is in Talladega Nights territory.
Grant: Okay. Fine. Let me watch Burn After Reading again.
Ben: Grant, I’m exceptionally impressed with your Coen Bros. graphic. I couldn’t produce that on my computer even if it was the only way to rescue my family from Nazis, who had perhaps kidnapped them with that Luger.
Grant: It took some fancy Photoshop work, alright. I wanted it to make a cooler shape, though. Something between a Mobius strip and a fishie.
I watched Burn After Reading again last night because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something. I ended up moving it from “alright” to “ugh.” Brad Pitt was sublime. He was so, so good. The reveal of Clooney’s secret project made me laugh. Several of the role players and character actors were typically outstanding.
That’s all I liked, though. And there’s a lot I actively disliked. The plot revolves around Frances McDormand’s Linda Litzke, who is basically Fargo’s Jerry Lundegaard with a desperation you don’t care about. The plot is similar to Fargo -- person descends into a world in which they don’t belong because of financial issues -- except I didn’t care a lick for Litzke. She was comically vain, and I didn’t buy her transformation from normal citizen to ruthless traitor. She goes to a Russian embassy because her 57-year-old arms look good for a 37-year-old instead of a 27-year-old? Nah. She’s supposed to set the whole thing in motion, and I didn’t buy it.
Tilda Swinton is the other major female character in the movie, and she’s unlikeable and stereotypically shrewish -- totally wasted. She exists to be awful enough to spur her romantic partners into action, nothing more. The obvious jokes and the oh-wait-we’re-the-Coens-so-we-need-to-be-wacky forced wackiness made it seem like a half-baked homage to the Coens, a thought exercise. What if the Coen Bros. decided to do a spy movie?, asked the Wachowski brothers, or some crap.
Now I want to watch Ladykillers again to see if I’m underrating it.
Craig: OK, that was way more damning than my Man With One Red Shoe quip, so let’s leave Burn to burn and turn to something else.
I feel we’re doing the Internet, which most of us call our professional home, a great disservice if we don’t mention The Big Lebowski. It, along with Miller’s Crossing, were the two hardest for me to rank for the same reason: I enjoy them both so very, very much -- maybe more than any Coen Brothers movie -- but my enjoyment of them probably causes me to overlook their flaws as films. I can’t decide if this matters or if, alternatively, I’m just being difficult in thinking of them this way. I’m no film critic, so there’s no obligation for me to separate my enjoyment and my appreciation for any film. Yet I still find myself doing this all the time, especially with the Coens.
Lebowski is sort of a mess. But so too is The Big Sleep. It has a murder that neither William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett nor Raymond Chandler could figure out who did it, for crying out loud. Is the mess of Lebowski a function of it being an homage to a mess? A function of its protagonist being a stoner? Or is it just a neat idea that, however much fun it ended up being, never came together? I struggle with this with these guys all the time. I have no idea why I do, but I do. I have no trouble saying that Woody Allen or Wes Anderson made a crap movie I didn’t like here or there, but even with the Coens’ worst movies, I wonder if I’m missing something.
But Lebowski may be the key to it all. It’s the one movie that non-Coens fans probably like the most. It’ll probably out live ‘em all thanks to that. And I can’t for the life of me decide what to make of it most of the time.
Rob: Well, I for one couldn’t get through all of The Big Sleep. Classic though it might be. I haven’t had any trouble getting through Lebowski, and I would suggest it’s a mess only if one assumes it wasn’t designed as a mess. Still, the lack of a particularly cohesive storyline does knock it down a few pegs for me. And for just about everybody else here too, I suspect. Since Grant has it No. 3 and nobody is higher than 6. Great characters, great scenes … not really much of a story. Anybody else want to weigh in on Lebowski? No? Okay, we’re hitting the home stretch here. Er, I mean the eighth or ninth inning …
Let’s hit some outliers now. First, Blood Simple, which I have to admit I probably haven’t seen in at least 15 years. So my fairly low ranking (11) is based completely on a long-ago memory. Still, I was surprised that both Ben and Craig have Blood Simple second on their lists (and I’ll mention that Craig’s top three are all early entries in the canon: Fargo, Blood, and Miller’s Crossing). I’m guessing a lot of people reading this haven’t even seen Blood Simple, so maybe one of you guys would like to write a quick primer for the willing acolytes?
Craig: Lebowski was a goof on film noir. In the 1980s and early ‘90s there were a lot of neo-noir films which, while not goofs, were certainly pretty damn aware of all of the old noir tropes, giving them a post-modern thing. Blood Simple is simply a great film noir which, later-model Volkswagon Beetles and way more brutal violence aside, could have been plopped down in 1949 or something and worked perfectly.
OK, maybe not perfectly, but it’s so straightforward, tightly but simply plotted, so well-executed and so unadorned of a movie that people who didn’t know better wouldn’t know that it came from the men who made O Brother Where Art Thou? and Lebowski. Which, to be sure, isn’t a slam on those later, mannered exercises. If anything, it gives them far more legitimacy and weight.
At the risk of crazy overstatement, Blood Simple is the Coens’ Birth of the Cool. Their Portrait of Aunt Pepa. Later, Miles Davis might go out on a creative limb with Bitches Brew and Picasso may have dashed off simple things or indulged in the hyper-abstract, but because you knew they were unquestioned masters of the medium -- they had been to school and, almost right out of the box, showed they had nothing left to learn -- everything else that came after must be taken seriously.
There have been a lot of “quirky” filmmakers who have come and gone over the past 25 years or so. They don’t last because their exercises don’t begin with the basics of all good fiction: someone wanting something badly. So badly that they’d do almost anything for it. Sometimes the Coens go off on detours and sometimes they lose their way entirely, but they always start from that basic, essential point. Maybe their characters want a baby. Maybe they want their wife back. Maybe they want fame on their terms. Maybe they want to show their loyalty while still being beholden to no one. But you can distill the start of every great film the Coens have done to someone with this want and the forward momentum to that character’s particular determination in obtaining it. You can wind back all of their good movies from the end and see that everything pretty much happened the way it had to happen, not because two particularly audacious filmmakers thought it would be cool to shoot a scene showing it, but because the logic of the characters and their desires made it inevitable. Tarantino puts the woodchipper scene in Fargo to shock you. Wes Anderson puts the “Danny Boy” scene in Miller’s Crossing because the song fits in wonderfully right there. The Coens do it because of course that’s what Gaear Grimsrud and Leo would do.
It all starts with Blood Simple. I think of it every single time I watch a Coen Brothers movie.
Ben: Blood Simple held the top spot on my list until the last moment. I switched it with No Country for Old Men for a reason that seems rather silly in print. It made some sense in my head. I didn’t want the first Coen Bros. film to be their best film. I thought it might seem a little disrespectful not to acknowledge their evolution as filmmakers.
Anyway, flawed logic aside, Blood Simple could easily be my No. 1 Coen Bros. movie. It is the best of modern film noir (a list that has to include two of the three movies John Dahl made for HBO in the mid-90s, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction). Blood Simple is better, though. Even the best noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s often have a moment in the plot where you say, “Wait a minute, why didn’t he just call his partner for help?” or “Why didn’t she just tell the truth there – he doesn’t care if she was in it for the money?” or “Why did he agree to meet the most dangerous gangster in town by himself at night when he knows the gangster thinks he’s sleeping with his girl, which he is?” Film noir – even when it’s really good – can have a lot of “Hey, wait a minute” moments, contrivances that get you to a dramatic confrontation, but take you ever-so-briefly out of the moment.
But Blood Simple has none of those. The movie makes sense. Diabolical acts, motivated by greed and desire, feel logical – maybe even necessary. The result is 97 minutes of intense anxiety. Movie anxiety. You don’t know what’s going to happen next and you’re not entirely sure what you want to happen next. But you’re fairly certain something terrible is coming and the character you’re rooting for – John Getz (John Getz!) – seems as if he’s never more than one wrong move away from catastrophe – death, betrayal, arrest – something horrible.
The private dick (private dick – I’m in full noir mode, apparently) is played by M. Emmet Walsh. Though it could’ve applied to the late J.T. Walsh, M. Emmet Walsh is the Walsh of Roger Ebert’s “Stanton-Walsh Rule,” which holds that “no movie with Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh can be altogether bad.”
Walsh is unforgettable in Blood Simple. You want a James Garner or Humphrey Bogart private eye, keep looking. Walsh is another beast – cunning, duplicitous, cruel, sleazy – you can’t not love him.
Crap, I think Blood Simple is #1. No disrespect intended.
Ben: Parenthetically, I wrote this before reading Craig. That’s a smart guy. Though I had to google Portrait of Aunt Pepa. I’m incapable of making a Picasso reference. He was a painter, right? And Rob nailed Lebowski. “Great characters, great scenes…not much of a story.” I’ve felt left out of at least 17 Lebowski conversations in my life. I can’t quote one line from it.
Craig: Forget it, Manki, you’re out of your element. That film really tied the oeuvre together.
Rob: I wanna get Leitch back in here … Hey Will, what’s your problem with True Grit? Grant’s got it fourth, Ben ninth, and me and Craig are between them. But you’ve got it 13th.
Will: It’s strangely impersonal for them, isn’t it? It’s well structured, but also oddly distant, as close as they get to a hired job. The best part of that film is the kid, Hailee Steinfeld, but even her pluck and determination seem a little too on-the-nose for what the Coen brothers are used to doing.
It’s also a little more slack -- a little more obligatory -- than what we expect from the Coens. It just sounds a little too perfect: Coen brothers! Remaking “True Grit!” With Jeff Bridges in the John Wayne role! But no one feels particularly energized or inspired: Even Bridges is a little too twinkly and faux-growly in the role. (I think it’s one of his weaker performances, one we’re supposed to admire more than we actually do.)
The Matt Damon character never much registers, and all told, the movie fails to improve much on the original. I think this is one of those projects that had so much “prestige” to it that everyone just sort of went along with it. But the brothers seem a little bored with it; it doesn’t have that impish sense of play their best work has. It’s more conventional than you’d ever want from the Coens, and all told, surprisingly dull. I think their hearts were never in it.
Rob: It’s funny, something I’ve noticed about people who think about the movies much like I do … I can agree absolutely with every particular criticism they might have … and yet essentially disagree with their general opinion. I agree with nearly everything Ben says about True Grit -- well, except that it’s little better than the original, which I think suffers from weak performances from all the principles except the Duke -- but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. Maybe just because I’m a sucker for a good Western, and these days they come so rarely.
Before we close, I thought it might be fun to just let anybody say anything they want about anything. Me, I want to mention how delightful I find the seemingly anomalous references to flying saucers and the Heisenberg Principle in The Man Who Wasn’t There. What might have been a noirish nod to Existentialism (or an Existentialist nod to noir) becomes instead something quite weirder. Although I have no idea what that something might be.
Craig: I’ll close with this:
Verna: What're you chewin' over?
Tom Reagan: Dream I had once. I was walkin' in the woods, I don't know why. Wind came up and blew me hat off.
Verna: And you chased it, right? You ran and ran, finally caught up to it and you picked it up. But it wasn't a hat anymore and it changed into something else, something wonderful.
Tom Reagan: Nah, it stayed a hat and no, I didn't chase it. Nothing more foolish than a man chasin' his hat.
Whenever I talk about the Coens with someone this exchange comes to mind, albeit a bit too late. Maybe it’s just about Tom, but sometimes I think that they’re telling us not to read too much into anything they’re doing.
Ben: I’ll close with a quick True Grit bit. I agree with Rob that it’s better than the original. But I hear Will; it does feel as if their hearts weren’t totally in it. So it turns out, even with lackluster motivation, they still make a movie well worth seeing.
So the Coens are one for two on remakes. The Ladykillers doesn’t compare to the original. We all know that.
Briefly on The Duke. I’m thrilled he won the Oscar for True Grit. He had to have one. But Wayne's better in Red River, Rio Bravo, The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and his last picture, The Shootist. At least those five. And I’m pretty sure he would’ve hated nearly every Coen Bros. movie.
Grant Brisbee writes for SB Nation and runs McCovey Chronicles. Craig Calcaterra writes for NBCSports.com and blogs about other stuff here. Will Leitch is everywhere. Ben Mankiewicz is a host at TCM and co-hosts the movie-review show "What The Flick?!" on the TYT Network. Rob Neyer is Rob Neyer and probably will be for a while yet.