The Coen Brothers' World
In the cinematic universe of award-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen, morality matters. Good and evil are usually depicted clearly as such; there are rarely shades of gray. Sometimes their camera lingers long on depravity, but they don't neglect the wages of sin, either; wrongdoers reap the consequences of their choices.
The Coen brothers celebrate 25 years of filmmaking this month with the release of their 14th movie, A Serious Man. It's perhaps their most religious work, juggling existential and theological questions in a story that invokes a modern-day Job. As protagonist Larry Gropnik's world begins to fall apart, he consults three rabbis with his Big Questions, only to find that the answers aren't easy—if there are indeed answers.
That's a good way to describe the brothers' opus: a chronic search for truth. Some might argue that the Coens' world is amoral, but a discerning look reveals morality aplenty. Good and evil stand apart from one another as clearly as black and white—or red and white, in the case of their classic crime story, Fargo. Set against the endless snow of the frigid Midwest, it's a movie about greed, about a perfect crime gone horribly awry—in short, about the wake of destruction left by one man's evil ambitions, seen starkly as a crimson trail of blood against the pure white terrain.
Fargo's heart and soul is local sheriff Marge Gunderson, played in an Oscar-winning turn by Frances McDormand. She's chipper, pleasant, and very pregnant. She's deeply affectionate and supportive of her husband, Norm. Their tranquil life contrasts the frenzied greed of the bad guys as much as a drop of blood on the snow. At the end of the movie, she wonders how anyone could be so selfish: "And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day," she sighs while driving the crooks to prison. Hers is a heart of gratitude and virtue; she couldn't be more different from the reckless criminals she's spent the whole movie pursuing.
Like Marge herself, the Coens have a longstanding curiosity about matters of morality. But hard as they might try, they can't seem to shrug off the realities of evil as calmly as their most famous heroine.
There's a certain moral rigor in all of their movies (well, maybe not in The Ladykillers) that has always suggested, to me, a subtext of spiritual inquiry. Where do these sharply contrasting ideals of right and wrong come from? On what basis do the Coens define virtue and nobility? Christians see goodness as a reflection of who God is, but in many of their films, the Coens, who are Jewish, don't offer a theology to speak of. Crucially, however, they don't exclude the possibility, either.
I don't know that Joel and Ethan Coen have answered the question yet; they may not have the answer. But they at least understand the question. No Country for Old Men—which won the 2008 Oscar for Best Picture—was a full-on breakdown of the Coens' moral compass. The film followed the devastating trail of death and depravity left by Anton Chigurh, a serial killer over whom human concepts of justice and morality have no power. Tommy Lee Jones plays the local law enforcement, but he's nowhere near so chipper as Marge Gunderson: "I feel overmatched," he says, paralyzed by his inability to enforce goodness or bring evildoers to justice.
What, then, of the Divine? The Coens grapple with the question; as Chigurh wrestles to subdue a lawman, he stares defiantly toward the heavens as if challenging God to intervene. Characters consider the role of fate, grasping for meaning in a world of chaos and suffering. The Coens don't necessarily point us to Christ, but they don't have to; they show us that human goodness is not enough, that our own devices are frail and feeble in the face of unstoppable evil. As Christians, we can fill in the rest of the story.
Josh Hurst, a CT Movies critic, blogs at thehurstreview.wordpress.com.
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More articles on film are available at Christianity Today Movies, including reviews of the Coen Brothers' Burn after Reading, No Country for Old Men, The Ladykillers, Intolerable Cruelty, and The Man Who Wasn't There.