The Coen Brothers: 20 Best Scenes - Part One
Over almost 40 years, the Coen Brothers have become two of the most distinctive filmmakers in American cinema. From their indie debut Blood Simple to the Oscar-winning triumph of No Country For Old Men, they have carved out a singular niche in Hollywood, subverting the tropes of well-worn genres to surprise, delight, and confound our expectations at every turn.
Like other esteemed directors who have earned namesake adjectives, we can all probably recognise the Coenesque qualities of their movies by now. You have the dark humour, fine-honed dialogue, offbeat narratives, and memorable characters, all wrapped up in a pristine package. The Coens are fine filmmakers and have always worked with outstanding actors, cinematographers, and composers, all of whom contribute to the reassuring seam of quality running throughout their filmography.
The Coens also make movies that work on different levels. You can enjoy them purely for the cinematic buzz, but there are also deeper themes to mull over. Throughout their career, the siblings have been preoccupied with fate, choice, and the randomness of human existence, often entrusting the audience to pick through these ideas on their own. Let’s take a look at 20 classic scenes from their incredible body of work...
Miller’s Crossing (1990) - Opening Credits
After a cold open rich with archaic gangster lingo, we move into a credit sequence that introduces the titular location, Miller’s Crossing, a lonely stretch of woods where fates will be decided throughout the story.
Looking skywards, the camera drifts through the swaying trees as Carter Burwell’s lush theme swells. The composer has been a key collaborator with the siblings since Blood Simple, providing the music for most of their films to date. Miller’s Crossing was his first orchestral score and it’s a gorgeous, sweeping, sentimental piece. It lends the densely plotted crime saga sweep and warmth, evoking the Emerald Isle of the protagonist’s ancestry without getting too leprechaun on us.
As the title appears, the camera settles on a hat lying on the leafy ground. The score takes on a more foreboding tone as it blows away through the trees. Circular or spherical objects are a recurring motif in the Coen filmography, reflecting their obsession with fate and karma: What goes around comes around, and the fortunes of their characters are often decided by the choices they make, for good or ill.
As for the hat, it belongs to Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), the laconic advisor to mob boss Leo (Albert Finney), and his own fate is intrinsically linked to its whereabouts as he negotiates a treacherous path through the labyrinthine narrative. It’s a neat example of how the Coens can take the well-worn iconography of a genre, in this case a gangster’s hat, and imbue it with their fatalistic worldview.
Burn After Reading - The Good Samaritan
The Coen Brothers have always managed to get excellent performances from their actors, and their casts have grown starrier over the years as big names clamoured to work with them. Even so, the siblings don’t just cast superstars for the sake of it, using a judicious balance of their regular troupe, excellent character actors, and Hollywood’s best.
A great example of this blend is Burn After Reading. It has its fans but it is very much second-tier Coens, coming directly on the heels of their big Oscar win for No Country For Old Men. Not only did the Coens have George Clooney, putting in his third appearance for them, but they also added Brad Pitt to the mix along with Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, J.K. Simmons, Richard Jenkins, and, of course, Frances McDormand.
In the film’s funniest scene, two misguided gym workers Linda (McDormand) and Chad (Pitt) call up former CIA employee Osbourne Cox (Malkovich) to shake him down for a reward to return a CD containing his memoirs, which they have mistaken for top secret documents.
Difficulties arise because Chad isn’t the brightest spark and his dim-witted attempts to play a mysterious blackmailer only serve to infuriate Cox, who isn’t in the best of moods after being woken up by their anonymous call.
It’s a great scene that really benefits from the contrasting style of the three actors. Pitt, perhaps underrated as a comic actor, carries it with Chad’s himbo enthusiasm for playing at spy games; McDormand provides contrast as his frumpy partner-in-crime; and Malkovich does Malkovich, brimming over with volcanic irritation and condescension and ready to tear his would-be blackmailer a new one.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? Man of Constant Sorrow
Music has often played a vital role in the Coen Brothers’ films, and the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? became an unlikely chart hit in its own right. Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, the film follows three escaped convicts on the run in Depression Era Mississippi: Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro).
After picking up with Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), the legendary bluesman who supposedly sold his soul to the Devil, they stop off at an isolated radio station to make a little cash cutting a record. The blind owner only goes for “old timey” stuff, so the gang launch into “Man of Constant Sorrow” and unwittingly become hit radio stars.
O Brother was Clooney’s first and best collaboration with the Coens, a chance to demonstrate his considerable comic chops as a loquacious charmer whose vocab is often several steps ahead of his thought process. Although his voice is dubbed for the song, the gusto with which he delivers the scene, along with Nelson and Turturro, is infectious. Better still, it pays off at the end of the movie when a live performance helps them give the leader of a white supremacist group his comeuppance.
For the soundtrack, T Bone Burnett curated an eclectic mix of bluegrass, folk, gospel, blues, and country music for the film, and the quality of the compilation made it an unlikely best seller, charting at Number One in the Billboard 200.
The Man Who Wasn’t There - Ed’s Execution
Barry Sonnenfeld, who went on to have a successful career as director in the ‘90s (The Addams Family, Get Shorty, Men in Black) did a great job as cinematographer on the Coen Brothers’ first three movies. Roger Deakins took over lensing duties for Barton Fink, and the rest is history: his beautiful photography has been an integral part of their filmography to date.
Some of his most stunning work came in one of their lesser appreciated movies, The Man Who Wasn’t There. The film is a nod to James M. Cain, adding to the Coens’ previous homages to the masters of hardboiled noir: Miller’s Crossing (Dashiel Hammett) and The Big Lebowski (Raymond Chandler).
The film stars Billy Bob Thornton at the peak of his career as Ed Crane, a monosyllabic, unassuming, chain-smoking barber who finds himself drawn into a typically Coenesque bungled crime plot, leading him to the electric chair.
The Man Who Wasn’t There stands apart because Deakins shoots the film in breath-taking black and white, evoking the era of classic Hollywood noir. The most striking sequence comes at the end when Ed calmly walks to his fate. The electric chair chamber is a beautiful piece of pared-back expressionistic design, with the chair seemingly floating in a brilliant white space. It looks like Ed is entering an antechamber of heaven. Although he says he regrets nothing in his soulful voiceover, there is a look of serene sadness on his face as the guard flicks the switch.
Blood Simple - The Bathroom Scene
One thing I’ve always admired about the Coen Brothers is their ability to take a scene you’ve seen 100 times before and put their own peculiar spin on it. Just take this suspenseful moment at the end of Blood Simple. Abby (Frances McDormand) is in mortal danger from a double-crossing private eye, Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), who has just killed her lover with a sniper rifle from across the street. Now he enters the apartment to finish the job. Abby retreats to the bathroom and checks the window; it is far too high to risk jumping out.
So far, so routine, but things take a left turn when Visser enters the bathroom and deduces that his victim has climbed across to the next window and back into the room next door.
Visser reaches across to lift the sash so he can follow, which is when Abby unexpectedly goes on the offensive. She slams the window shut on his hand and pins it to the ledge with a knife. The danger seems to be over, but Visser goes all Terminator on us, firing six shots through the wall and punching his way through to free his hand.
The Coens are great at building suspense (see also my second pick from Blood Simple later) and their superb eye for detail that really stands out from more generic thrillers. Here the most striking image is the streams of light beaming through the bullet holes as Visser shoots his way through, which create a sense of eerie heightened reality that makes it so memorable.
Fargo - Mike Yanagita
The Coen Brothers like to keep tight control over their movies, shooting only what they know they’re going to use and sticking tightly to the script. This means there are no deleted scenes and there is very little room for improvisation from the actors. They also edit their own work under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes, which gives them further control over the performances and the finished film.
Due to this, there are very few scenes in the Coen Brothers filmography that feel like they could have been cut. At first glance, the Mike Yanagita scene in Fargo seems like an anomaly.
While investigating the kidnapping of the wife of a Minneapolis car dealer, Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) agrees to catch up with an old school friend, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) while she’s in the city.
The meeting doesn’t go well. After some awkward small talk Mike puts a move on Marge, which she kindly but firmly knocks back. Mike realises he has made a fool of himself and starts tearfully talking about his wife, who has passed away. It’s an incredibly cringey scene but a wonderful vignette between Park and McDormand, who does some of her best work with her eyes as she deals with the situation and tries to save Mike’s blushes.
It’s a scene that initially seems like it could have been cut, but it does serve a purpose in the story. The next day, Marge finds out that Mike isn't really widowed and has been stalking the woman he claimed was his wife. This revelation makes Marge realise that she takes people at face value too much, which is crucial to her cracking the case.
The scene also adds more depth to Marge’s character. Without it, she would just be the epitome of “Minnesota Nice” and the film’s honest heart. The date shows that even Marge is open to temptation; she doesn’t mention her meeting with Mike to her husband and dolls herself up in a way that suggests she is quite excited about seeing him again. Until he turns out to be a total creep, that is.
Barton Fink - Madman Mundt
The Hotel Earle in Barton Fink is one of the most memorable locations in any Coen Brothers movie, with its creepy peeling wallpaper, oozing walls, whistling doors, and hungry mosquitos. This deserted joint is where pompous playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) finds himself living when he switches Broadway success for Hollywood hackery, tasked with writing a wrestling potboiler for Wallace Beery.
Stricken with writer's block, Barton becomes friends with his next door neighbour, folksy travelling salesman Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). It turns out that Charlie has a very dark secret: He is actually serial killer Karl “Madman” Mundt, whose M.O. is decapitating his victims, which makes Barton question the contents of the head-sized parcel his neighbour left with him for safe-keeping before his latest trip. Worse still, LAPD detectives arrest Barton for complicity in Mundt’s crimes.
What happens next is a classic example of the Coen Brothers unexpectedly introducing elements of fantasy into a scene. As the detectives question Barton, it starts getting very hot, making their suspect realise that Charlie has returned to the hotel. They cuff him to the bed and go out into the hall, where flames flicker through the open elevator door. Charlie emerges, puts down his case, and pulls out a shotgun. Roaring at the top of his lungs, he charges towards them, the walls bursting into flames as he approaches. Murdering the two detectives, Charlie frees Barton and heads back to his room next door.
What are we to make of this? Is the hotel meant to represent Hell, and Charlie is the Devil? The Coens delight in giving us questions with no answers, but one thing we can say is that the Hotel Earle is one of the most least welcoming places to stay since the Overlook in The Shining, another movie where writer’s block causes the lead character to become untethered from reality. It’s also a fantastic two-hander between John Turturro and John Goodman, who perhaps deserved the Oscar nomination over Michael Lerner, whose performance as the monstrous mogul Jack Lipnick was entertaining but a little one-note.
Raising Arizona - Picking Up Diapers
Throughout their career, the Coen Brothers have constantly kept us on our toes by flipping between genres and tones. They did this right from the outset, when they followed the pitch black Blood Simple with the zany Raising Arizona. Petty crook Hi McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) falls for police officer Ed (Holly Hunter) while having his mugshots taken for his latest crime. When he gets out, they marry, only to find out they can’t have kids. Unable to adopt due to Hi’s criminal record, they decide to kidnap a quintuplet baby of local furniture magnate Nathan Arizona, figuring he and his wife won't miss one with so many babies on their hands.
Money worries rear their head when Hi punches his boss for suggesting a little wife-swapping, leading to an argument between the happy couple. That’s when Hi stops to pick up some nappies and his criminal tendencies take over.
What follows is a chase scene that could have been directed by Tex Avery. With the cops on the way and Ed leaving him high and dry, Hi tries to make his escape on foot through the neighbourhood with a pack of nappies under his arm. Of course, since it’s Texas, everyone is packing guns and taking pot shots at him along the way, causing him to lose the loot. A detour through gardens, houses, and a stop off at another store to steal even more nappies follows, with a pack of local dogs also in pursuit.
A Serious Man - The Tornado
A Serious Man may be the Coen Brothers’ most overlooked film. That could be because, at first glance, it appears very low-key after the suspense and sweep of No Country For Old Men. The film stars an excellent Michael Stuhlbarg as a buttoned-down Jewish college professor who turns to his faith to try making sense of things when his family life falls apart, only to find fewer answers than he began with. He’s a decent man, but the pressures of his situation lead him to making one very bad decision.
Early in the film, Larry is offered a bribe from a student’s father to bump up the kid’s grades. He previously turned the offer away but at the end, the bribe lands on his desk again. He knows he shouldn’t take it; things are finally looking up for his career as his boss hints that he will receive tenure. However, this time he gives into temptation and changes the grade.
The scene is drawn out, cross-cutting to Larry’s son at school, where an approaching tornado makes the teachers evacuate the classrooms to the emergency shelter. All appears in hand but, as soon as Larry changes the grade, things begin to look ominous. Immediately, he gets a call from his doctor who wants to urgently discuss the results of Larry’s chest X-ray, and, at his son’s school, a teacher can’t get the door to the emergency shelter open as the tornado bears down on the kids.
We don’t find out what happens in either instance, because the Coens like letting us ponder their endings with an ambiguous note. In A Serious Man, they are exploring their own Jewishness, albeit in a very Coenesque way, through the lens of their favourite themes: the randomness of human existence and the choices we make.
In Larry’s case, do the choices he makes have an influence on the universe? The events at the end of the film could merely be coincidence, but it is set up in a way that suggests Larry’s bad decision immediately provokes the ire of the cosmos, threatening his career, health, and the potential death of his son.
The Hudsucker Proxy - “Y’know, for kids!”
The Coen Brothers rarely go for outright twists but, in their typically idiosyncratic style, they placed one of their best about halfway through The Hudsucker Proxy.
Paying homage to Hollywood screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, we follow ambitious but clueless college graduate Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), who arrives in New York looking for a job. With no experience, he only manages to land a gig in the mailroom of Hudsucker Industries on the same day that the company’s president, Waring Hudsucker (Charles Durning), takes a dive out of the boardroom window on the 44th floor.
Immediately, scheming vice president Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman) hatches a plan to snaffle up the controlling interest in the company’s stock by installing a moron as the new president to scare away investors. That’s when he meets Norville…
From his first arrival at Hudsucker, Norville is eager to show everyone his big idea that he has been working on for a few years. On a scrap of paper he keeps in his shoe is a drawing of a circle. When they look confused, he says by way of explanation: “Y’know, for kids!”
When Mussberger gives Norville the go-ahead to put his baby into production the reveal is a great “gotcha!” moment. He has invented the hula hoop, which he demonstrates with infectious wide-eyed enthusiasm to the board. Maybe Norville isn’t such a dimwit after all.
It really landed as a great twist when I first saw the movie, but unfortunately the poster spoils it by showing Norville with a hula hoop. The story isn’t based on the real inventor of the ‘50s fad, but the toy’s producer did have some say in the movie, persuading the Coens to include another of their products as Norville’s last big brainwave, the frisbee.
So there you have it, my first picks from the Coen Brothers’ best scenes. What will make the Top 10? Stay tuned to find out next week!