The Coen Brothers and The Meaning of Life
Three films by the Coen Brothers, A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, and No Country for Old Men, have a distinct style and sensibility. If these films are looked at as a group, the Coen Brothers can undoubtedly be considered auteurs, and great auteurs at that. Auteur theory is broad and varied; however, I believe that it is an essence that a director gives to his or her films that fundamentally defines him or her as an auteur. And all three of these Coen films have a recognizable essence that one can reference as a “Coen Brother’s film.” It’s not just that all of the films have an existentialist theme, or that they are all slowly-paced, and technically spot-on, it’s that there is a cohesive “feeling,” and there are many consistencies among them.
Existentialism questions how ordinary people should live their lives in a world which seems to make no sense. If life is random and chaotic, if there is no universal plan from God or any other external force, then what does man do? Does he just wait for life to unfold as it will or does he “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?” The three protagonists, Larry in A Serious Man, Llewelyn in No Country For Old Men, and Osbourne Cox in Burn After Reading, are ordinary people who are dealing with these questions, although not necessarily consciously. In fact, most of the characters in each film are operating on a level where they are less than adept in navigating the world around them. The situations tend to involve botched crimes or a series of mishaps. All three of the protagonists are “serious men.” And all three movies revolve around not-so-smart, middle-aged characters. Burn After Reading is the film where this is most blatant. The characters are so stupid, in that film, that the audience is banging their heads against a wall in agony. In No Country for Old Men, Llewelyn Moss, the main character, does something so ridiculous that you find yourself screaming, “My God, don’t do it,” and “Why would you do that?” when he goes back to the scene of the crime where the big shoot out occurred to bring back water to the dying drug dealer, who is most likely already dead at that point. In existentialist terms, in which mankind has free will, and life is a series of choices, often involving negative consequences, these characters blunder from point to point, neither resolving their anxiety or finding a perfect tidy conclusion. And in the case of Llewelyn Moss, he blunders right into death. Existentialism advocates moral individualism, and Moss, navigating his own moral compass (“Llewelyn…What are you gonna do?” “Fixin” to do somethin’ dumber than hell, but I’m goin’ anyways”) navigates into his wife’s demise as well as his own.
The Coen Brother’s use of structure is another way in which their unique sensibility plays with the audience’s perception of the internal logic of a movie world. In the Coen’s world, chaos reigns and one situation does not necessarily lead into the next as it would in a movie with a classic cause-and-effect structure. Events move in strange directions and often go out of control. Often, the Brothers give the audience a subtle clue that things may not take a linear direction through the use of dialogue. For example, in No Country for Old Men, there is a scene towards the end where a woman lying by the pool at a hotel asks Llewelyn what he’s looking for. He replies, “Lookin for what’s comin.” And then she says, “Yeah, but no one ever sees that,” hinting, if folks are listening carefully, that in this irrational and absurd universe, what’s coming next may be the last thing you expect.
In addition to structure, characters often reinforce this sense of dislocation for the audience. There is always a character in the Coen Brothers’ films who represents the audience’s point of view, like the CIA superior, played by J.K. Simmons in Burn After Reading, Tommy Lee Jones’s character of the sheriff in No Country for Old Men, and Larry in A Serious Man. They have a hard time trying to understand everything, and the audience, looking through their eyes, is equally confused. This reinforces the existentialist feeling of the films. Often, events are chaotic, without explanation, and the audience feels as off-balance as the characters, unable to find a framework that makes sense.
The moral compass which centers a film is one that audiences expect; for instance, in a James Bond movie, 007 is in service of the greater good. The hero chooses the lesser of evils in order to set the world right. But the essence of the Coen Brother’s films is that morality is not so simple. Unethical characters in the films often get away with many wrong doings; they win. George Clooney’s character in Burn After Reading is allowed to escape to Venezuela, and Linda Litzke gets her plastic surgery paid for by the CIA. Anton, in No Country for Old Men, though badly injured, walks away from the car accident scot-free. And the Asian student who bribes Larry in A Serious Man in the beginning gets a passing grade in the end. We’re back to choices; mankind has free will, and bad guys don’t necessarily end up getting caught.
Although many of the characters’ actions are morally questionable in a traditional sense, some of them are also searching for God in one way or another, hoping to find some answers to the seemingly random, pointless things that happen in their lives. Larry, in A Serious Man, does this by going to see the Rabbis to understand what God is trying to tell him. He asks the second Rabbi, “Why does he make us feel the questions if he’s not going to give us any answers?” The Rabbi replies, “He hasn’t told me.” In No Country For Old Men, Jones’s character says in the end, “I always figured when I got older God would sorta come into my life somehow. And he didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him, I’d have the same opinion of me he does.” And the character Ellis responds to him with, “You don’t know what he thinks,” an answer that is existentialist to its core.
As illustrated by many examples in this essay, the dry sardonic humor which is a trademark of the Coen Brothers, weaves its way through every film, even those, like No Country For Old Men, which is a more serious drama at its core. Another trope which makes a film quintessentially Coen, and which puts them in the pantheon of auteurs, is the absence of the typical happy ending one expects in a classic Hollywood film where nothing is left resolved or figured out. They tend to go against the grain, always keeping the audience on their toes. These filmic ambiguities, like the ambiguity of life itself, disturb some and please many.
Ultimately, the three Coen Brothers’ films show that life doesn’t make sense and that our actions have consequences. So, what matters most about life is not what the universe does to us, but how we choose to act in the face of a world which may not have purpose. The characters in the films, although often caricatures or exaggerations, are the epitome of the confused, lost souls who are forced to deal with not being in control of their own lives or being able to understand the mishaps that befall them in an ever-changing world and indifferent universe. Their misguided choices, often involving pure self-interest, do not always end as they hope. So are the Coen Brothers saying, “Life is futile; give up?” Or, “It’s not possible to find the meaning of life?” Maybe the Coens are just saying, “If nothing else, only humor can get us through the day, and through our films we’ll provide that humorous distraction for you.” Or is their message a more truly existential one? Are they telling us something else? Are we supposed to do the opposite of what their characters do in their films? Like Hamlet, should we “take up arms against a sea of troubles,” and make our own purpose, find a true moral center, in a purposeless world?
-by me…Brittany Sherman :)