Posted on Friday, February 5th, 2016 by Jacob Hall
The filmography of Joel and Ethan Coen is untouchable. Of their 17 films, at least a dozen of them are arguably great films and more than a few of them are genuine masterpieces. Ranking them is a fool’s errand. I know this because I have tried. Within a year, I wanted to erase the whole thing. Their work sticks with you, attaches itself to your mind and grows with you. Minor films become masterpieces over time. Little moments reveal their layers, their profundity, upon repeat viewings. The Coen brothers filmography feels alive – it’s always growing, always changing. Even their newest film Hail, Caesar (out today) threw me for a loop. I literally have no idea how I’ll feel about it tomorrow or six months from now.
So I’ve assembled a list of ten perfect scenes from the Coen canon. They are unranked, presented in chronological order, because I do not want to impose rigid form on something that I know will shift and change within a year or two. But right now, these scenes sum up why they’re special and their work should be celebrated. Few modern artists have showcased such range and fewer have dabbled in so many different genres and forms while maintaining their voice at every moment. These scenes represent a sublime partnership and the best modern cinema has to offer.
Spoilers follow, of course.
“Well, ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.” (Blood Simple)
Blood Simple is an astonishing first film, a lean, vicious slice of noir that finds new ways to turn the screws on its small cast of characters in every single scene. The climax would be farcical if it wasn’t so brutal and terrifying, following Frances McDormand‘s Abby and M. Emmet Walsh‘s Visser as the latter tries to kill the former… only she thinks Visser is her brute of a husband, who Visser murdered much earlier in the movie. This showdown is the result of countless misunderstandings, of too many people making poor decisions and running with inaccurate assumptions. In the film’s unforgettable final scene, a dying Visser realizes just how out of the loop everyone truly is, how genuinely FUBAR’d this situation is, and how a bunch of people just died for reasons no one really understands. His bleak laughter says it all – the woman who killed him doesn’t even understand why she killed him or even who she killed. It’s a moment of bleakly comic darkness that is impossible to shake.
“Nathan needs some Huggies. I’ll be out directly.” (Raising Arizona)
Raising Arizona is essentially a live-action cartoon, with Nicolas Cage playing a morally slippery Bugs Bunny. However, the film’s best slapstick reinforces its characters. The film’s silliest scene is all about how Cage’s H.I. McDunnough sinks into crisis mode after being confronted with the responsibilities of fatherhood. Never mind that his new baby was one they abducted from a wealthy couple, he’s still under that paternal pressure. Feeling trapped and anxious, he reverts to his old criminal ways while on a diaper run, leading to a bizarre and increasingly outlandish chase sequence that finds new ways to top itself at every turn. The Coen brothers’ eye for action collides with their comic timing, resulting in a sequence that is as exciting as it is funny, a classic Looney Tunes chase brought to life. Just with more firearms.
“Look in your heart!” (Miller’s Crossing)
Miller’s Crossing is interested in process. It’s not content to simply tell a gangster story, but rather, it wants to explore the nooks and crannies of the gangster story that never get told, that never make it to the screen. It’s a rich film filled with all kinds of pleasures both obvious and subtle (snappy dialogue, confident plotting, dry humor), but its attention to detail, to how human begins navigate this violent world with its own special brand of rules, is what resonates the most. This fuels its best scene, which currently isn’t available on YouTube, where Gabriel Byrne‘s Tom is forced to take John Turturro‘s Bernie out into the woods and execute him. It is a deeply uncomfortable sequence, with the generally unflappable Tom questioning every step as Bernie begs for his life, literally falling to knees to scream for mercy. It’s fearless work from Turturro and an uncomfortable look at someone refusing to quietly walk to a noble death as they would in countless other crime movies. Miller’s Crossing asks you to actually examine the dynamic between a potential murderer and his potential victim and it’s simultaneously hard to watch and impossible to look away.