“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.

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