Though largely regarded as humorists, directors Joel and Ethan Coen have produced some of the finest crime movies ever committed to film. Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, and their adaptation of No Country for Old Men are straight-ahead crime movies enriched with the Coens’ visual style and lip-smacking dialogue. Even Fargo, though the thick Minnesota dialect draws huge laughs, couldn’t be more of a crime movie.
The Coens, though, have diverted from their crime path here and there, not that you’re going to hear me complaining. But lighter comedies like their remake of The Ladykillers or their more darkly comical A Serious Man hover around the crime genre like eyewitnesses. However, their current effort, which began shooting this past February, Inside Llewyn Davis, is an examination of the folk music scene in 1960s Greenwich Village. This subject matter itself would severely test my enthusiasm if it was anyone but the Coens making it. But will it even come close to a crime movie? Let’s look at the odds:
1. Raising Arizona (1987)
Let’s just get this out of the way: this is the greatest movie of all time. At least as far as I’m concerned, which means it’s also as far as you’re concerned. There are a lot of things going on in this movie; apparently, for their second outing, the brothers decided to just put every idea they had into one movie, every idea they had previously feared might not be commercial enough, and just ran with it. The result is the funniest, most touching, and aggressively well-made film of its time, a truly unique enterprise. Though it can be argued that the Coens would go on to even better films, I seriously doubt one could say the same for any of the principal actors, especially Nicolas Cage, and even in the case of John Goodman. Centered around an ex-con and his police officer wife who kidnap a baby when unable to have children of their own, the entire plot of the movie is crime-driven. With Hi’s escapee buddies the Snoats brothers and the baddest-ass bounty hunter since Boba Fett, Leonard Smalls, the cast is full of criminal types, of whom the Coens are obviously fond. Odds Llewyn Davis is a crime movie: 20 to 1.
2. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Their first major-budget movie and also their first box-office heartbreak, this movie is the Coens’ tribute to the romantic American films of the 1950s, with their fast-talkin’ city-gals and swelling orchestral scores. Tim Robbins plays a Midwestern dope who is rocketed to the head of a major manufacturer looking to panic the stock market. As rife with hilarious dialect and dialogue as any of their pictures, the criminal element in Hudsucker is largely white-collar, and overall, morality is painted with broad strokes, to fit the filmmaking of the old days. While still a great film, it is quite the backstep into unabashed nostalgia, not as filtered through the Coens’ post-modern eye as their other films. Odds Llewyn Davis is a crime movie: 50 to 1.
3. The Big Lebowski (1998)
I must have watched this movie 20 or 30 times before I realized it was a Raymond Chandler novel. I would have felt stupid for not having sussed that out sooner, except for the fact that, even on the 30th viewing, I was laughing way too hard to pick up on sub-text like that. Easily the Coens’ most quoted and fan-favorite movie, Lebowski features Jeff Bridges in the role for which he’ll always be remembered, a burn-out turned reluctant private-eye. Like I say, it’s easy to get carried away by the tidal-wave of profanity and John Goodman in his greatest role to miss the fact that the plot is essentially the “little girl lost” standard perfected by Chandler and imitated by every single crime novelist ever since. Though it’s not as obvious a Coen crime movie as, say, The Man Who Wasn’t There, it’s probably all the more a perfect example of the genre for that fact. Odds Llewyn Davis is a crime movie: 15 to 1.
4. Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
Would you believe I actually rolled my eyes at this movie when I first saw the trailer? Then the announcer says, “From the creators who brought you The Big Lebowski…” and I felt like such an asshole. Of course, the Coen brothers want to do a straight romantic comedy, why the hell wouldn’t they? If only to keep their audience guessing. Upon my first viewing, I was enjoying things, Clooney being Clooney, and Billy Bob Thorton in one of his finest (if smallest) roles. And yes, Clooney’s lawyer character is a bit slimy, and Cedric the Entertainer makes a fine low-brow private eye. But I dunno, something was still missing. And then Wheezy Joe shows up. Played by Irwin Keyes, Wheezy Joe is a hired hitman who is also an asthmatic. Though his role is minor, it’s still hilarious (asthmatic hitmen, take note not to follow Joe’s example here), and when he showed up, it hit me: those fuckin’ Coens knew I was waiting for a piece—even if just a piece—of crime. And I should have known they wouldn’t be able to resist. Nor will they ever, I don’t think. Odds Llewyn Davis is a crime movie: 5 to 1.
So it’s not the best odds I’ve ever given, but Intolerable Cruelty pushes it into the realm of the probable. Like I say, had I not known that movie was made by the Coen brothers, I probably would never have seen it. Just like if you told me some movie about boring ol’ folkies in ‘60s New York was coming out, I’d also take a pass. Unless the Coens are on board. Even if there’s no criminally redeeming aspect of the film, it’ll still be one of the best movies of 2013. Bet on it.
Exactly the opposite happens to me. I hated No Country for Old Man., It was shallow and gratuituous, volence a la Tarantino, nothing more. I’m really happy that the Coens are exploring new grounds rather than just keep making internet ‘badasses’ happy, with childish violent movies. I have great hiope for Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s my kind of movie!
And I join you in that anticipation, as clearly I am a huge Coens fan. But to be frank, I find myself a bit resentful of the implication that merely because I happen to enjoy “childish violent movies,” that I am unhappy with other films. Even conceding to you the notion that Tarantino’s work tends to be exploitative (a notion that can be argued, but I actually mostly agree with that), No Country for Old Men is far from being shallow and gratuitous in my estimation. The story is about the changing mores in American society, especially as one finds it at the dawn of the Reagan era, when the residual effects of Watergate and Vietnam (and possibly disco) had taken their utter toll on American innocence (for lack of a better word). Therefore, the violence that permeates the film (as well as the novel) coupled with the existential ennui (leading to perhaps a less than “meaningful” conclusion in any traditional sense) is absolutely intrinsic to the finished product.
Obviously, everyone is entitled to his or her personal taste, but simply because one doesn’t like a film doesn’t mean it’s without merit and it shouldn’t reflect poorly on those who enjoy it.
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