How directors dissect American culture

The Coen Brothers Joel Coen and Ethan Coenare well known not only for their artistic style, but also for their primary interest in aspects of quintessentially American culture and identity. The Coen Brothers have produced, written and directed an impressive number of critically acclaimed films since their career debuts with single blood (1984) until their last projects, producing the Fargo American anthology television series. From one of the best Coen Brothers movies, Barton Fink (1991), was nominated for three Oscars, and became the first film to win all three major awards at the Cannes Film Festival, the brothers established themselves as a serious (and very talented) filmmaking duo.


Their detective thriller Fargo (1996), starring Frances McDormand, was nominated for seven Oscars and won two. It is ranked number 170 on IMDB’s list of the top 250 movies of all time and was developed into the successful television adaptation of the same name. While the film certainly represented a shift in expectations for what the Coen brothers had to offer, previous films such as Raising Arizona and later movies like O brother, where are you? using parody as a vessel to provide a comedic yet thoughtful insight into American culture and what defines it.

The Coen Brothers and the Misfortunes of the American Working Class

John Turturro making a humorous facial expression as Barton Fink in the 1991 film.
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The Coen brothers’ signature theme is to produce films that serve as vignettes into average American life, often shining a light on the plight of the proletariat. For example, Barton Fink (John Turturro), the main character of the 1991 film, is a working-class American playwright from New York City with big dreams. He’s clearly not ready for the harsh notoriety that comes with “making it” in Hollywood. This basic scenario is all too familiar. Even the Coen Brothers characters are archetypes but it is voluntary. The brothers take classic American tropes and amplify the root of their meaning, throwing any semblance of cliché out the window. It is a comedy, but dark; the Coens do not spare their audiences the harsh realities facing the American working class.

Related: Is The Coen Brothers Movie Fargo Based On A True Story?

Creatives like Fink struggle to make ends meet because art very rarely pays off, and in Hollywood, you pretty much have to know someone to become someone (and earn a “someone’s paycheck”). ‘a”). The plot quickly devolves into symbolic absurdism, involving a murder mystery which in turn frees a delighted Fink from his writers’ block. His morbid joy at succeeding as a Hollywood screenwriter outweighs the devastation caused by the loss of his confidante, revealing revealing comments about American views on the work ethic and mindsets about capitalism that encourage individuals to walk on the feet of others in order to rise to the top. This can also be seen in their masterpieces The Hudsucker Proxy and A serious man.

Typically American themes and images

U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) sporting an eyepatch, cowboy hat, and cigarette, wielding a revolver in True Grit.
Paramount Pictures

O brother, where are you? (2000), starring Coen Brothers regulars George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson, was nominated for two Oscars. The screenplay is an Americanized version of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, with even modernized versions of the blind prophet, the cyclops and three mermaids. The film is set in Mississippi during the Great Depression, in which the three protagonists have escaped from prison and are trying to find their way home. Of course, since their incarceration, their life has passed without them. The comedy film features quintessentially American imagery, such as a KKK lynching mob and a hilarious chance encounter with infamous bank robber George “Baby Face” Nelson.

During the trio’s first escape, the Blind Prophet (an older black man on a pump cart whose destination is a mystery) informs them that the “treasure” they seek will not be the treasure they hope to find. . Motivated by greed, they misinterpret his words and go in search of this supposed treasure. The ex-convicts, who are finally pardoned in an incredible and hilarious coincidence, must settle for their new reality, as told by the prophet. They do not achieve wealth. They are not graciously welcomed into the arms of their families. Just because they’ve won their freedom doesn’t mean they aren’t “free” from their relational or emotional ties. The Coen brothers reveal, in one of the best films about the American dream, that the dream is an unattainable lie established by the ruling class in order to suppress the lower classes and maintain a false idealism to be achieved.

Related: Are the Coen Brothers Done Making Movies Together?

In the film nominated 10 times at the Oscars in 2010 The real courage, the Coen Brothers portray a classic American western setting. There are cowboys, outlaws, state marshals and southwestern towns reminiscent of John Wayne westerns. A young girl named Mattie Ross, played by Hailee Steinfeld, hires US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a hardened man who likes a little too much drinking, to track down her father’s killer and bring him to justice. Determined to hold Rooster accountable and make sure the job is done, she insists on accompanying him on the difficult journey to capture the dangerous outlaw. In doing so, the girl shows courage; she’s not what you’d expect of a girl her age, and she doesn’t care.

His courage, however, is not without consequence; she is bitten by a rattlesnake and loses the affected arm as a result. There’s always a dark, ironic twist to these movies. Mattie is punished for her tenacity. His strength, courage and wit are not his folly, but rather his justified distrust of a figure who represents American authority. a character who has the power and status to get away with being bad at his job. This sentiment echoes what is relevant today: the system of law and justice simply cannot be trusted. The real courage (and to some extent, many other Coen Brothers films, such as The Man Who Wasn’t There and There is no country for old people) highlights the devastating impact of American individualism and the failure of the justice system that is supposed to be in place to protect its ordinary citizens rather than those in power.

A cultural heritage

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The Coen brothers themselves have become synonymous with American culture, now famous for their many depictions of various themes specific to American life; With nearly four decades of excellent movies, the list goes beyond the movies named in this article. Consistent themes throughout their work focus on depicting the plight of the working class and the flaws of capitalism, critiques of rugged individualism and patriarchal norms, and the harsh realities of life in America and what really means to be an American. They manage to achieve this level of depth and complexity without tedious moralizing or excessive desperation, thanks to the twisted, palatable humor characteristic of their films. The Coen brothers’ filmography is not just a collection of stories that represent American culture, but a body of work that in itself preserves American culture.


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