Look In Your Heart: 10 Perfect Scenes Directed By Joel And Ethan Coen

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.

miller's crossing

"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.

"Look upon me! I'll show you the life of the mind!" (Barton Fink)

In Barton Fink, Hollywood is Hell and screenwriting is an endless cycle of punishment. As John Turturro's title character struggles to write a screenplay, he finds himself steadily drawn into a surreal world of affairs and violence, monsters and killers, crippling writer's block and despair. Those hellish overtones take on a far more literal form during the film's climax, when his "everyman" neighbor at the Hotel Earle reveals himself to be a serial killer, lighting the whole building on fire and running wild with a shotgun. It's terrifying imagery, like something torn straight out of a horror movie, and John Goodman's unhinged performance is not something you shake easily.

"And here you are. And it's a beautiful day." (Fargo)

Everyone remembers the wood chipper, but it's the scene that follows that really transforms Fargo into a masterpiece. After spending the entire film navigating a twisted web spun by idiots and psychopaths, Frances McDormand's police chief Marge Gunderson catches Peter Stormare's Gaear Grimsrud shoving the remains of Steve Buscemi's Carl Showalter into that wood chipper. She shoots to wound, taking her man in alive. Their one-sided conversation in the car represents the Coen brothers at their most optimistic. She ponders why he'd do such a horrible thing. She wonders out loud why any of this was worth a little money. Why would you choose to do this, especially when there are so many better things you could be doing on a day this beautiful. Marge may be the Coen brothers' greatest creation – an unflappable, blue-collar woman whose basic decency is her armor, whose homespun exterior masks someone of great intelligence, whose warmth allows her to survive the cold and violent world she has chosen to serve. Her words to Grimsrud may be simple, but they are wise. She sees through the bullshit.

"I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in." (The Big Lebowski)

The Big Lebowski is a film noir turned inside out, adopting all of the traits you'd expect to see in a classic detective story and tweaking them just enough. It's a stoner riff on The Big Sleep, with a slacker inhabiting the detective role and an off-kilter Los Angeles providing the oddball danger and mystery. In the film's wackiest sequence, Jeff Bridges' The Dude is drugged and falls into a deep sleep, where he dreams of bowling and pornography and Julianne Moore's Maude Lebowski. In many mysteries, there comes a scene where the hero is knocked out and all the elements of his case play out in his mind, providing new insight into what he must do. The plot at the center of The Big Lebowksi – so ridiculous and manufactured by buffoons – doesn't allow for that. So The Dude just gets to take a break from his troubles in an extended musical number.

"What's the most you've ever lost on a coin toss?" (No Country For Old Men)

Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh considers himself an agent of fate and a servant of destiny. Nothing just happens. If a coin minted in 1958 ends up in his pocket decades later, that was providence. If one of his many victims was not supposed to die, they would have given him the right sign. Fate would have pre-determined their safety. In No Country For Old Men's best scene, Chigurh has an extended chat with a gas station attendant. He flips a coin and asks him to call it: heads or tails? What Chigurh doesn't say, and what the attendant may not fully comprehend, is that he has a 50/50 chance of making it out of this encounter alive. It's chilling work, a pitch-perfect portrait of a psychopath and the worldview he uses to justify his actions.

"If he wakes up, we'll worry about it then." (Burn After Reading)

Burn After Reading may be the Coen bothers' meanest movie, which is saying a lot. And its cruelty is magnified because this is a goofy screwball comedy, albeit a goofy screwball comedy with a high body count and more than its fair share of vicious characters going out of their way to do harm unto others. As a group of loosely connected morons circle a seemingly life-or-death scenario involving blackmail, spying, and secret government documents, we occasionally check back in with two CIA agents (played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons), who quickly remind us that the actual plot of the movie is entirely trivial and everyone is getting worked up (and shot) over nothing. The film's final scene is a masterstroke of cruel comedy. John Malkovich's deranged Osborne Cox murders Richard Jenkins' Ted (the only truly decent person in the entire movie) with a hatchet... and then we smash cut back to CIA headquarters, where Rasche and Simmons quickly wrap everything up, dismiss the entire movie as nonsense, and hope that they never have to speak of it again. The final joke is on you, the audience, for actually thinking this story was worth your time. It's glib and it's mean and it's just so damn funny.

"The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can't ever really know what's going on." (A Serious Man)

All Michael Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik wants is answers, but the world of A Serious Man goes out of its way to deny him anything. Religion denies him comforting and easy answers. His wife is leaving him for another man. His seductive neighbor is as mysterious as anything else in his life. And why is he being charged by the Columbia Record Club for records he didn't order? A Serious Man is a comedy defined by pain and uncertainty – if there is a God, he certainly doesn't give a shit about you and his servants on Earth aren't particularly helpful either. Which brings us to this amazing dream sequence, which begins with advanced physics, edges into spiritualism, and concludes with some truly inspired physical comedy, all done in the service of denying its lead character satisfaction of any kind. It's the entire film in a nutshell. 

"I don't see a lot of money here." (Inside Llewyn Davis)

The YouTube clip below ends a few seconds too early. It captures Oscar Isaac's performance of "The Death of Queen Jane," one of several incredible songs the beleaguered folk singer Llewyn Davis sings during Inside Llewyn Davis, but it misses the cruel punchline. After trekking halfway across the country, after facing countless hardships and trials, after destroying his life and his relationships in pursuit of his craft, Llewyn finally finds himself face-to-face with Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), the man who can make or break his career. And after his astonishing performance, after showcasing the artistic integrity he has fought so hard to protect, Grossman gets honest with him. He's good, but he's not going to make anyone rich anytime soon. Sorry, kid. Best of luck to you elsewhere. Unfortunately, Llewyn spent his last reserves of luck a long time ago.