Warning: spoilers ahead for Coen brothers movies in general.
By the time the Coen brothers’ Fargo glides to an end, apocalyptic punishments have been disbursed all around. One kidnapper and murderer is dead and mostly mulched; the other has been caught extremely red-handed, shot in the leg, and hauled off to face trial. The grasping husband who hired them is ignominiously captured while trying to crawl out a bathroom window in his underwear. He’s spent the whole film desperately trying to preserve his dignity with fake smiles and desperate lies, but as he’s arrested, he loses all his pretenses, and wails incoherently, like a trapped animal. Even his domineering, emasculating father-in-law winds up dead, shot by the kidnapper he was trying to bully. All the blood, profanity, and comedy aside, Fargo is the kind of crime story that would have passed muster under the Hays Code: Criminals are never glorified or glamorized, even minor transgressions are brutally punished, and no one gets away clean.
That’s standard in Joel and Ethan Coen’s films, which often take a brutal, Old Testament tack on morality, defining good and evil along Biblical guidelines, and offering little wiggle room for anyone who doesn’t follow the Ten Commandments, or even anyone who strays from the Golden Rule. Their films are never explicitly religious in the sense of Christian-targeted movies, which come with frequent preaching and doctrinal messages. But the Coens always touch on moral choices, from career criminality to simple codes of personal conduct. And when characters make the wrong choices—which they virtually always do, because there would be no story otherwise—the Coens either laugh at them or kick them in the teeth. Different films take different approaches, but the Coens’ career as a whole has established some definitive rules:
1. Once dramatic characters stray from goodness, however that’s defined, they’ve sealed their fates, and there’s no earning their way back.
Often, what drives the Coens’ stories is the implacable unfolding of extreme consequences once that first wrong step is taken. That focus started with their first film, Blood Simple, a pared-down neo-noir that strips away most of the usual femme-fatale conniving and patsy-protagonist resistance, and cuts to the chase: Julian Marty’s wife Abby cheats on him with his employee Ray. Their decision is barely examined: The film doesn’t explore Abby or Ray in any depth beforehand to see what leads to their choice, and doesn’t dwell on their relationship, or even their personalities. The Coens’ lack of interest in the whys of their affair suggest that their reasons don’t make any difference—just their actions, which lead quickly and inevitably to catastrophe. Ray and Abby choose to cuckold Julian; he chooses to avenge himself through a private detective; the detective chooses to betray his boss; Ray encounters the fallout of that betrayal, fatally misinterprets it, and makes the worst decisions the situation allows. Every decision tree along the way inevitably leads to a worse place with a higher body count. In the end, three of them are dead, and the last one is traumatized, shattered, and left alone to mourn.
The Coens have gotten much less blunt and more sophisticated with their moral explorations over the past two decades. Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, doesn’t read nearly so much like a morality play, though it’s similarly merciless. The film begins with the titular character getting a brutal beatdown, before the film even reveals what he did to earn it. But as it loops back in time, it suggests, over and over, that Llewyn’s life is a sort of perpetual beatdown, a nonstop series of setbacks and disappointments, and that on some cosmic level, he’s earned them with his own failings. As a struggling singer in New York City’s 1960s folk scene, he’s cruel to his fans and patrons, he’s uncharitable and rude to other performers, and he’s selfish and self-absorbed in general. And the world responds to him with equal rudeness, shutting him down at every opportunity. Where the punishments in Blood Simple come from direct, clear cause-and-effect processes—the betrayers are betrayed, the killers are killed—Inside Llewyn Davis’ chastisements are more abstract. There’s no direct causal link between Llewyn screaming at his host at a dinner party for singing along with his music, or abandoning a cat in a car by the side of the road, and Llewyn getting rejected by the producer who could turn his career around. But seen within the pattern of the Coens’ overall take on how negative personal choices lead to outsized destruction, it’s hard to miss the suggestion of a connection.
The clearest map of their films’ moral outlook comes in 2009’s A Serious Man, an open exploration of how God works in the world, and whether moral justice exists. As physics professor Larry Gopnik endures the trials of Job (or the trials of Llewyn Davis, with far less of a sense that Larry is a schmuck perpetually earning his own comeuppance), he questions what godliness means, and tries to make the right choices, particularly regarding a student attempting to bribe him for a better grade. Events around him suggest the world is a chaotic, unjust, random place, or at least a place with no clear answers, as the fables at the beginning and middle of the film emphasize. But the second he crosses the line, when he stops his ethical struggle and decides to accept the bribe, the consequences are instantaneous: He gets an ominous call from his doctor about the results of a medical test, while a tornado threatens to engulf his son’s school. The story implies that God may be capricious about rewarding the just, but never about punishing the guilty. It’s impossible to earn success through good works, but easy to earn failure through bad ones.
2. Dramatic characters who transgress morally can still be sympathetic, but that doesn’t get them off the hook.
The Coens consistently visit brutal judgment and retribution on their characters, but they feel for their suffering along the way. They display plenty of empathy for Llewyn, soldiering on after his partner’s suicide, and displaying a real talent for creating beautiful, soulful music. (Though it seems particularly relevant that the Coens never delve into what drove his partner to kill himself, or what their relationship was like beforehand. Again, they suggest, causes aren’t as important as actions; Llewyn’s assholery may be the result of well-earned despair, but the forces of impersonal retribution still can’t justify or condone it.) And Larry in A Serious Man seems put upon past the point anyone should have to endure: He struggles with his health, his wife has an affair and demands a divorce, anonymous letters threaten his tenure. He seeks answers in his Jewish faith, which has no answers for him except an exacting “Obey the rules.” It’s no surprise when he doesn’t, given what he’s been through, but the film’s final shot makes it clear that those rules are ironbound, regardless of excuses.
Coen protagonists tend to make one early bad choice that will lead to destruction by the end of the movie, but their struggles to evade it are endearing and fascinating. Llewelyn Moss in No Country For Old Men earns his fate by leaving a gunshot victim to die and taking his money, but spends the rest of the film fleeing a series of implacable, murderous enemies, and it’s natural to cheer for him as he flees from a vicious pursuing dog, or dodges drug-runners bent on murdering him. Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing endures repeated brutal beatings and mortal threats, and ultimately loses everything but his life while trying to navigate a clever system of lies, betrayals, and reversals. Barton Fink starts Barton Fink by queasily deciding to sell out his considerable talent for Hollywood money, and spends the rest of his film suffering the horror-movie consequences. Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There draws himself a straight line between deciding to blackmail his boss and dying in the electric chair, but he’s victimized relentlessly along the way, in ways that make him more victim than victimizer. Even Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo is sympathetic, as he desperately tries to dig himself out of the hole he’s created. The Coens don’t hate their sinners—they just don’t let them get away with the sin.
3. Characters in comedies play by different rules—but only with the open understanding that their rules are ridiculous.
The Coens’ dramas only account for half their filmography: The other half are farces, where the natural moral order is reversed, and people literally get away with murder. The most extreme example is 2008’s Burn After Reading, where the nicest character gets murdered in a crazed hatchet attack, the second-nicest character gets fatally shot in the face, and the rogue’s gallery of adulterers and blackmailers largely slip the noose. The film ends with a couple of baffled CIA officers debating what they’ve learned from the whole debacle, and concluding that none of it is particularly meaningful or useful. They arbitrarily decide to grant one selfish and small-minded character exactly what she most wants, so they can sweep all the movie’s events under the rug and ignore them—and it comes across as a referendum from the Coens, revealing the lack of a point or a center in a story where the villains are rewarded and the best people (relatively speaking) are punished.
The Big Lebowski follows a similar pattern: It’s a rambling story of anything-goes anarchy, where no satisfying conclusions are reached, the guilty escape justice, and the most innocent character dies in the climactic confrontation. Lebowski doesn’t underline its themes as emphatically as Burn After Reading, but it ends with a similar “This was all essentially meaningless” monologue, with Sam Elliott as “The Stranger” telling the camera that the important thing is the way Jeff Bridges as The Dude is “out there, takin’ her easy for all us sinners.” Bounced about between all the evils of the world, The Dude’s only real job is to stay calm, detached, and alive as he laughs sadly about what a mess the world becomes if no moral center can be found.
4. Even in comedies, some moral lines can’t be crossed.
Coen comedies often have criminals and con artists as protagonists, but the filmmakers still divide “good,” endearingly kind criminals from “bad,” malicious ones. Raising Arizona has a pair of babynapping criminals as heroes, but a more obvious and intimidating villain shows up in order to get killed off, and the protagonists only really live happily ever after in their unlikely dreams. The Ladykillers brings out the comedy, though not always the sympathy, in a heist story, but the thieves still all die, with the final one falling victim to the kind of act of God that feels like a particularly pointed comment from the filmmakers. The Hudsucker Proxy is so patterned after Frank Capra and Howard Hawks films that it would feel ridiculous to bring calamity down on its lightweight, cartoony protagonists, who are at most guilty of a little professional deception and hubris, but it still finds a way to send its villain off to an asylum. Intolerable Cruelty eventually redeems its central swindler and gives her a heart of gold, while killing off the real villain in a ridiculous accident. Even when the criminals make good in a Coen brothers film, someone has to be punished. It helps if they spend the whole film suffering for their crimes while trying to be good, like the protagonists of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, who do somewhat earn their redemption—almost unheard of in a Coen movie, and permitted only as a farcical, silly idea. None of these films brutalize their main characters for moral trespass the way the Coens’ dramas do, but they’re also all drawn as broad absurdist comedies, pitched far from reality.
5. In the rare drama where the villains go unpunished, the entire point of the story is grief at God’s failings.
Even when the Coens don’t originate their storylines, they choose to adapt material that reflects their fascination with ethical codes, and follows through on their sensibility: True Grit is a story told along strict, classical Western lines, where bad men are gunned down and innocence prevails, though it’s irrevocably damaged in the process. The Ladykillers, based on the 1955 comedy of the same name, makes more of a hash than usual of ethics; the Coens’ most muddled film sometimes seems up in the air about whether any of the characters are worthy of sympathy, and in the end, it falls on the side of killing the criminals off and letting God sort them out. Miller’s Crossing, loosely patterned on a pair of Dashiell Hammett novels, lets its mobbed-up protagonist survive—though less because he’s a smaller evil in a story of big evils, and more because he’s secretly following a strict moral code throughout, staying loyal to the people he loves at immense risk to his own life.
No Country For Old Men, a close adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, looks like the biggest disruption in their pattern: It punishes the protagonist and his innocent wife for his failings, while letting mass murderer and open villain Anton Chigurh walk (or at least limp) away, as he does in the book. But just as Burn After Reading takes criminals’ success as a reason to conclude that life is preposterous and meaningless, No Country For Old Men takes it as reason for grief and despair. It ends with Sheriff Bell somberly noting God’s failure to assert Himself—in Bell’s life, but possibly also in the world at large—while the devil controls the land. And the film’s final words, in which he recounts a dream about his father going before him with the seeds of a fire he’s planning to build “out there in all that dark and all that cold,” suggest the smallness of hope in the world, and the suggestion that if there is an ultimate morality, it’s a tiny light in the darkness at most.
But it’s a light that clearly fascinates the Coens. Even in their worlds, innocence and purity are no guarantee of survival, let alone success: Their stories are littered with people who suffer for other people’s moral failings, perhaps most epitomized by poor Jean Lundegaard in Fargo, dead on the kitchen floor while her killer, headed for retribution, watches TV behind her. Even virtue generally isn’t rewarded: Consider the ransom money in Fargo, buried by an anonymous post under a blanket of snow, and how many crime films (The Ladykillers, for instance) end by awarding exactly that kind of life-changing windfall to some worthy soul. Instead, Fargo’s hero Marge gets to go home quietly to her husband Norm and ponder what the future will bring, and hope their child will be one of those blessed little lights in the darkness. They’d better hope so, since it’ll be growing up in a Coen brothers world of either strict moral reckoning or laughable anarchy.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of Fargo ends here. Don't miss Tuesday's Keynote on the many faces of Fargo's Minnesota, and Wednesday's staff Forum on the film's portrayal of masculinity and crime, the Mike Yanagita mystery, and more. Next week, strap on your white platform shoes and join us as we look back at Tim Burton's feature debut, Pee-wee's Big Adventure.