When looking at some filmmaker's work from the past fifteen years, it is difficult to identify themes that connect one of their films' to the next. Michael Bay (director of Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, etc.), for instance, seems to have developed his films mostly in an attempt to make money. While each is connected by the dramatic flair that Bay brings to the action sequences and many times they are about a group of people trying to save the world, very rarely does it seem like these films have any deeper theme beyond that. Indeed, it seems that only very few, like Joel and Ethan Coen have been able to craft films that have consistently pushed the same ideas. Using fantasy theme analysis on their films it becomes abundantly clear what these ideas are and how the Coen Brothers have continually shaped them. Further narrowing the lens to examine Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man, a clear worldview begins to form and symbolic convergence occurs as viewers of these films may begin to “build a sense of community or a group consciousness” (Griffin, 34).
In order for the Coen's to have successfully achieved symbolic convergence, it is necessary for them to first have had a well defined rhetorical vision, or according to the textbook, “a taken for granted description of how things should be.” (Stoner, 202) While there are numerous similar themes and devices that are used in many of the brother's films, this paper will focus on three specifically that connect these five films, the first being their attempt to portray a world in which money, rather than being a key to a good life, is often more harmful than good, and in which it ultimately destroys anyone who seeks it for the wrong reasons.
Beginning with Fargo, the Coen brothers created a film which focused on the lengths which one man (Jerry Lundegard) would go to in order to get more money, willing even to have his wife kidnapped by two thugs in order to receive the blackmail money from his father-in-law. As the film progresses, anyone who attempts to take the money is met with disastrous consequences: Jerry is eventually jailed for his part in the kidnapping, his father-in-law is killed when he refuses to give the money up, one of the thugs is killed when he attempts to cheat the other, and the other thug is eventually caught and jailed himself. As is true with nearly all of the other films, no one gets away.
This concept is best illustrated by No Country for Old Men, in which a character named Llewellyn Moss finds a bag with a million dollars in it and tries to keep the money. In the end, he and another person that is hired to find the money, are eventually killed. In Burn After Reading, this is also the case when two characters attempt to blackmail another for once again, one million dollars, with one of the two ending up dead as a result of his actions. And, in A Serious Man, while there is for once not a blackmail attempt, the main character, Larry Gopnik, who goes through a host of miseries in his life, has seemingly turned his life around for the better, until he finally accepts a bribe that one of his students gave him in order to raise a grade from failing to passing. It is at this point in the film that Larry receives a call from a doctor, who by his tone and request to meet with Larry in private, suggests that Larry has probably gotten cancer or some other serious illness. Meanwhile, Larry's brother, Arthur, who attempts to use a gambling formula that he has developed in order to gain more wealth for himself, is in equally desperate straits by the end of the film, on trial for sodomy.
In addition to the characters who actively pursue money throughout the films, like Moss or Lundegard, being hurt by money, their attempts are also shown to have horrific impacts on their loved ones. In both Fargo andNo Country for Old Men, the spouses of the main characters are killed as a result of the husband's actions. Similarly in Burn After Reading, Linda Lytzke's two best friends are killed after she gets them involved in an attempt to blackmail a government official. The most drastic example of this is A Serious Man, where not only is Larry's family hurt, but it also appears that the entire town will be destroyed due to a tornado that hits only after Larry has made his decision.
Marge Gunderson, a cop in Fargo sums up the Coen's feelings of money better than any other character in their filmography, saying to a criminal that she has arrested,
“So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it.”
While this happens in The Big Lebowski as well, with Donnie, the protagonist's best friend and an innocent character being killed as a result of the protagonist's actions, it stands in opposition both plot-wise and ideologically with the other four films, much like it will in terms of the other two aspects that make up the Coen's rhetorical vision. In this film, unlike the other four, none of the characters who pursue the money actually end up harmed; only the one who stays out of the way is killed. Additionally, whereas all of the other films have endings that are wrapped around death, in The Big Lebowski, not only are the characters living as well as they always have, but new life is created from the circumstances earlier in the film, allowing the protagonist to become a father.
Although this examination of money and its effects on people is the first element that makes up a Coen brother's film, it is not the only thing that connects their filmography. Additionally it seems that in all of their films there is a central figure (which according to fantasy theme analysis would be the neutral people), who tries to make sense of the chaos swirling around them, usually trying to sum up the problem within the last five minutes of the film.
For instance in The Big Lebowski, the narrator says at the end of the film,
“The Dude Abides. I don't know about you, but I take comfort in that. It's good knowing he's out there. The Dude taking er easy for all us sinners. Shoot I sure hope he makes the finals. Well, that about does er, wraps her all up. Things seemed to have worked out pretty good for the Dude and Walter, and it was a pretty good story, don't you think? It made me laugh to meet the man. Parts anyway. I didn't like seeing Donnie go, but then I happen to know that there's a little Lebowski on the way. I guess that's the way the whole dern human comedy keeps perpetuating itself, down through the generations, westwards to wagons, across the sands of time until we... ah look at me. I'm rambling again.”
This again sets the film apart from the other four and is almost an entirely different conclusion than the rest of the neutral people in the other films are able to come up with. For example in Burn After Reading, a CIA superior asks his inferior what they had learned about the whole situation. When the inferior says he has no idea, the superior responds by saying, “I don't fuckin' know either. I guess we learned not to do it again. I'll be fucked if I know what we did.”
This, along with the Marge Gunderson quote mentioned earlier, seem far more indicative of the Coen's rhetorical vision than what The Big Lebowski attempts.
The apparent differences between The Big Lebowski and the rest of the films are interesting, because they represent such a departure in tone for the brothers. Whereas Fargo has some comedic moments throughout, the end is grim with Marge Gunderson attempting to figure out why these bad things keep happening. The Big Lebowski, on the other hand, is much more comedic, having nary a serious moment. What is perhaps even more difficult to comprehend is that out of all these films it is only The Big Lebowski which attempts to say something greater about the human race in its final moments. In this scene is an optimism, about life coming from death, that is entirely missing in the other four films. Indeed the scene seems like it comes from completely different filmmakers when compared to Ed Tom's own monologue in No Country for Old Men,where he laments by saying,
“The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure. It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, "O.K., I'll be part of this world."
The question becomes then, why did the brothers seemingly change their viewpoint, if only for one film? One potential answer is that The Big Lebowski is the Coen brother's attempt at parodying their other films, meaning that if they usually produce films with grim endings, it only made sense for them to have a film that ended on a somewhat happy note. To be sure, there are other aspects of the film which separate it from the other four including characters that unlike most of their other creations seem far more over the top. And while the Coen brothers are certainly no stranger to dream sequences, the drug fueled sequences in The Big Lebowski almost seem to put it in an entirely different universe than the other films mentioned here.
Also missing in The Big Lebowski is the third element of the Coen Brother's rhetorical vision, obsession on the violent nature of man and what causes it. This cause is different from film to film: in Fargo the fight for money, in No Country for Old Men the apathy of both the elder and younger generations, in Burn After Reading an inability to communicate, and in A Serious Man religion.
While a variety of factors like the ones mentioned spark violence, it is religion and God that are seen as major factors in at least two of the films (No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man) and which seem more and more to be what the brothers are attempting to address.
A Serious Man is the most obvious example of this out of the films, centering the entire film around one man's misery and asking what he is doing wrong. No matter what Larry Gopnik does, it seems that his life continues to get worse in every conceivable way. He goes to three rabbi's throughout the course of the film, all in an attempt to get answers, and the only possible answer is given near the end of the film when Rabbi Marshak, the eldest Rabbi, tells Larry's son, “Be a good boy.” It is only after Larry fails by giving in to temptation and when his son attempts to use money to buy drugs at the end of the film, when the tornado comes, seemingly to destroy the town.
Is it possible, given all of the intricate details of their films and all the hard questions that they ask, that in the end the Coen's philosophy is as simple as being good? While there are many things that the brothers seem to be trying to say, this, however conventional or simple it may be, seems as good of an explanation as any. In their films, it appears as if the Coen's primarily attempt to convince the audience that the world is a chaotic force, which only the virtuous will survive. As the filmmakers have grown, it appears that their worldview and thus what they want to convey to the audience has changed, switching from a slight hope to utter despair by their most recent film. In order to understand how they have progressed as storytellers, it is necessary to look specifically at the film's individual denouements and what happens to the characters within them.
With Fargo the film ends with several dead, but Marge Gunderson, the pregnant heroine of the film, alive and happily married. While she may not understand the violent ocean that has landed on her shore, she is able to withstand it, overcoming the evil in the film. Moving to The Big Lebowski, the heroes (if there are any) are also able to overcome the villains resulting in a happy ending. After that comes No Country for Old Men, in which for the first time the heroine does not survive, being killed by someone who is the very embodiment of the Coen's nihilistic philosophy. Good does not triumph here; confusion reigns and the psycho at the film's core is the one who gets away. In Burn After Reading, not only are the virtuous characters killed as a result of the actions of the selfish characters that surround them, but those selfish characters are able to profit from the violence. And finally in A Serious Man, every character fails to stand up against the wave of confusion, ending with the possible destruction of the town. No one is innocent in this final story and as a result no one survives.
This shows the path that the Coen's have taken their fans on. From Fargo where it was still possible for the characters to be optimistic about the world to A Serious Man which leaves the characters standing hopeless as the destruction washes over them, it appears that the Coen's have had a clear message throughout: the world is not getting better and the only real hope that you have is to try and do the best that you can. Even then though, the world is a dark place.
Successfully achieving symbolic convergence by being able to create a feeling that is unique to their films and letting the audience know what worldview to expect when sitting down to watch one of them, the Coen's have proven to be masters of their craft. They are a rare breed and something that should be treasured. To not only have a theme that runs throughout their films, but to build upon it with each release is amazing and is something that very few filmmakers could successfully achieve.
It will be fun to find out whether True Grit continues the thread that the Coens have begun, getting even bleaker in its outlook, or whether they will finally rediscover some of the optimism that made Marge Gunderson such a special character in the Coen's oeuvre. Whatever the case, the only thing to be sure of is this writer will be there opening night, ticket in hand, eager to find out.