The film composer Carter Burwell—who has written music for every Coen brothers film except Inside Llewyn Davis—said during a recent interview on the podcast Score that Ethan Coen appeared to be done making movies, choosing now to focus on writing and directing plays. Here’s Burwell:
Ethan has written and produced on his own I know, but [The Tragedy of Macbeth] is the first time Joel is directing on his own. Ethan just didn’t want to make movies anymore. Ethan seems very happy doing what he’s doing, and I’m not sure what Joel will do after this. They also have a ton of scripts they’ve written together that are sitting on various shelves. I hope maybe they get back to those. I’ve read some of those, and they are great. We are all at an age where we just don’t know.
This is not quite breaking news; not long after it was revealed that Joel Coen would be writing and directing The Tragedy of Macbeth (which is set to premiere at the New York Film Festival next month) alone, the Los Angeles Times published an article about Ethan Coen. According to the article, Ethan Coen—who was at the time preparing to stage his new play A Play is a Poem—finds the electric, immediate, and risky nature of live theater far more appealing than the “piecemeal, technical” nature of filmmaking. In the Times article, he’s quoted as saying that he’s “giving movies a rest.” At the time, I don’t remember anyone interpreting this as anything other than the younger Coen brother announcing his retirement from directing films, but the Burwell interview is being treated as a revelation: Ethan Coen is done making movies.
Of course, Ethan Coen has struck out on his own before. He’s written two books of poetry (The Day the World Ends and The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way), a collection of short stories (Gates of Eden), as well as several plays before A Play is a Poem, including one, Talking Cure, which was part of an anthology of three short plays staged under the collective title Relatively Speaking. (The other two plays in the triptych were written by Woody Allen and Elaine May.)
To be sure, these solo works from Ethan Coen have what you’d have to describe as a specifically Coen-esque flair about them. The title story of Gates of Eden begins with the narrator arriving at a gas station and filling up two five-gallon canisters. When the gas dispensed does not reach five gallons in either container, the narrator beats the gas station manager into the dirt (“That green card you got ain’t a license to steal!”) before revealing, at the end of this brief opening: “My name is Joe Gendreau. California Weights and Measures.” Funny, but almost too preposterous to find its way into one of the films he made with his brother. On the other hand, “We Sheep,” the first poem from his second poetry collection, ends, after a verse describing the feeding habits of sheep, this way:
Does wisdom fret at what’s in store
And boggle at what’s gone before –
Or rather does it not, like us,
Do what it must, and nothing more?
And is there credo any know
More sound than that – to just adjust,
Adjust, adjust, adjust, adjust,
And every trouble, worry, woe,
Ignore, ignore, ignore, ignore?
Chilling, bracing, and not all that funny.
So that part is nothing new. Those of us who love the Coen brothers’ art—Miller’s Crossing is my favorite film, so count me among them—wonder what will Ethan Coen’s absence mean for the films to come? For about the first half of their career, the credits for each brother broke the workload down like this: Joel directed, Ethan produced, and they both wrote the screenplays. Eventually, the Coens revealed that this breakdown was arbitrary, and that in fact both of them collaborated on all those jobs (they also both edit their pictures, usually under the pseudonym “Roderick Jaynes”). If these films were the product of a true, across-the-board collaboration, what essential element will be lost when Ethan is gone?
Right out of the gate, with their debut feature Blood Simple (1984), their style—a mix of violence, black humor, absurdism, and even genuine heart (see my earlier piece about 1996’s Fargo, or just see Fargo)—was locked into place. Over the next nearly 40 years, they have refined and expanded their already broad palette, so that no matter in what direction the Coens went, it all made sense, everything fit, everything was part of the same worldview. They followed up the merciless Blood Simple, with its indelible images and sounds of horror—that shovel blade being scraped along the highway macadam, the light shining through holes blown through a wall by gunfire—with Raising Arizona (1987), one of their live action cartoons: a hilarious, expertly made farce that includes two world-class comic performances from Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, and ends on a note of genuine, and somehow earned, melancholic hope. How do they accomplish this? How, in their arguably even more absurd The Big Lebowski (1998), does the sudden death of Donny (Steve Buscemi) near the end actually carry an emotional punch? Up to that point, the film never even hints that the heart is one of the organs being employed here, and yet there it is in the way the ridiculous (but often correct!) Walter Sobchack (John Goodman) rushes to the fallen Donny’s side, and the image darkens to pitch black, save for the neon stars set into the walls of the bowling alley.
Moments like these in the Coen brothers’ filmography feel miraculous. The Coens’ use of music often has a lot to do with this. Townes Van Zandt’s cover of “Dead Flowers” at the end of Lebowski does a not-insignificant amount of work, for example, and the “O Death” sequence in O Brother, Where Art Thou? introduces the heft of uncomfortable history to one of their most joyous movies. And the miracles don’t come just from their light comedies—I immediately think of the brief shot of newly-minted murderer Ed Crane’s (Billy Bob Thornton) hands, completely unstained by blood, in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001).
The Coens’ films are nothing if not moral. That morality comes through very easily in the lighter films already mentioned, but it’s perhaps even more forceful when they’re at their bleakest. Their most black-hearted film, Burn After Reading, announces its morality by lacking it almost completely. No Country for Old Men offers no hope whatsoever, to anyone (even two young boys who begin their short scene trying to help an injured man exit fighting pointlessly over money), and argues either that true evil is so unblinking and relentless that the good people in the world will eventually, inevitably fall before it, or that the good among us had better fight harder than we currently are if we don’t want to end up like Tommy Lee Jones. Sheriff Bell, ultimately, chooses to ignore, ignore, ignore, ignore.
In 2009, the Coens made what may well be their masterpiece. A Serious Man feels like their final word on, well, existence. Not to be too grand about it, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that the film, about a Jewish physics professor in 1960s Minnesota who is suddenly beset with one misfortune after another, each one worse than the one before, finally culminating in an astonishing, apocalyptic last shot, asks the kind of Big Questions that modern films pretty much never do anymore (and rarely ever have, if we’re being honest). It’s a film that, at the time, was misunderstood by many as being a nasty mockery of religious faith, and so uncompromising in its moral point of view that it turns into cruelty. The former is nonsense, but the latter is arguably true; it’s simply not necessarily a bad thing.
At any rate, A Serious Man does not mock religious faith; I don’t even think it’s atheistic. Rather, this very complicated film acknowledges the near impossibility of living in the world the way you want to, or think you should, and the impossibility of reconciling your beliefs with the things that happen to you. If free will and God both exist, then it’s not up to God to protect you. Dealing with God and dealing with life must be approached separately, because they are separate. Religion and faith come up a lot in the Coens’ film (sometimes quite respectfully, too), but it seems to me that this idea is something they’ve been developing, maybe unconsciously, for most of their career. (Suddenly, once again, I’m reminded of the death of Donny, who loved the outdoors—and bowling.)
And, of course, it’s the work of two artists, not one. So now what? In Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), in what may well turn out to be one of Joel and Ethan’s last collaborations, Oscar Isaac plays a folk singer who, as the film opens, is dealing, badly, with the recent suicide of his singing partner, Mikey. Writing about the film for The Dissolve, Matt Singer observed: “Maybe Inside Llewyn Davis is about the Coens nervously imagining life without one another. Instead of a memory of the ’60s, it’s actually a nightmare of a creative partnership’s messy aftermath. … Based on all the evidence onscreen, and the assessments of agents and executives, Llewyn isn’t cut out for solo musical stardom. He needed that collaboration. It was everything he had.”
I believe anyone reading that piece at the time, or anyone who might have read the film the same way, wondered what a similar situation would mean for the Coens. Nevertheless, it looks like we’re about to find out.