You’d imagine the latest in Cahiers Du Cinéma’s study of great directors was both a gift to its author — Empire’s Ian Nathan, in case you hadn’t noticed — and something of a nuisance. On the one hand, the richness of Joel and Ethan Coen’s catalogue is undeniable, taking in hits (Raising Arizona, True Grit, Fargo), flops (The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers) and one bona fide movie cult (The Big Lebowski), not to mention the greatest gangster pic of the ’90s that wasn’t GoodFellas (Miller’s Crossing). On the other hand, the brothers themselves are, to use Nathan’s adjective — “awkward”. Thus his brisk, compulsive journey through their career is defined as “a quest to identify ‘Coenesque’, by divining answers from a body of work where the very elusiveness of answers is a theme, and the creators are saying nothing.” Not least in terms of speculating about his own hypothesis, Nathan is resoundingly successful.
Some of it is inherently speculative (as it would be for any writer, saving the Coens themselves), but there’s no sense of shooting in the dark. Nathan’s recognition of Coen themes and visual rhythms throughout their 15 films comes anchored by deep knowledge of their inspirations (from the crime novels of Cain, Hammett and Chandler to the cartoons of Chuck Jones), and is deftly connected to clues from their personal history.
Gripes by critics of the Coens’ chilly style are mentioned but not indulged, yet this is no easy ride. Nathan applies due disdain to the likes of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. About the latter, he notes, “If the Coens have a single purpose, it is to transform all genres into comic noir... How do you transform a black comedy into a black comedy?”
Perhaps we will never truly ‘know’ Ethan and Joel Coen. But, as much as the Masters Of Cinema series is into the whole brevity thing, by the time this pursuit for ‘Coenesque’ ends you’ll feel you know them much better — despite Nathan’s own admission that, by definition, there is no final definition. As he concludes, their work genuinely speaks for them. Even if the Coens themselves would tell you not to listen.
Reviewed by Dan Jolin