Coen Brothers: O brothers, who art thou?
They are too successful to be considered outsiders, but relatively little is known about Joel and Ethan Coen
The Coen brothers' new film went down a bomb in Cannes last week, and was considered unlucky not to be awarded the Palme d'Or (it took the Grand Prix). Inside Llewyn Davis is a wistful comic drama set in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s that follows the fortunes of a struggling folk singer whose po-faced anthems give an ironic nod in the general direction of Bob Dylan.
Oscar Isaac plays Davis, an earnest and profoundly self-absorbed young musician whose adherence to the high principles of the 1960s folk movement has not brought him much success. His most recent album has tanked, he gets beaten up after a particularly pompous gig and is sleeping on the sofa of his best friend, with whose wife he's romantically involved.
The film has been described by Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian as "brilliantly written, terrifically acted, superbly designed and shot". It opens here at the end of this year, and is just the latest triumph in the Coen brothers' extraordinary movie career.
Since the brothers emerged from nowhere as fully formed filmmakers in the mid-1980s with their acclaimed debut Blood Simple, they've ploughed a distinctive and eclectic furrow that sets them apart from the US mainstream. At this stage, with six Oscars and countless other awards to their credit, Joel and Ethan Coen can hardly be considered industry outsiders. But their work still feels more indie than mainstream, and is driven purely by artistic concerns – never, it seems, by money.
If anything unites their 16 films, it's a distinctive bleak humour. Crime plays a big part in their fictional world, and some Coen productions have been memorably violent. They tend to pit little people against impossible odds in bleak and hostile environments, but even the grimmest Coen tragedy is underpinned by a comic sensibility.
They're incredibly cinema-literate, and make constant references to classic American films. They rarely give interviews, and a biographical element is noticeably lacking from their work, which has prompted some critics to dismiss them as clever but shallow pastiche showmen.
But that's unfair: the Coens have made some of the most interesting and perceptive films to emerge from America in the past few decades.
The only film that gives any kind of glimpse into their lives is A Serious Man (2009), the acclaimed but commercially disastrous drama about the travails of a small Jewish community in 1960s Minnesota. Joel and Ethan were born in that snowy state in the mid-1950s, and their parents were both respected university academics.
"In retrospect," Joel has said, "it seems odd that there was this thriving Jewish community on the plains of the Midwest." Perhaps that sense of displacement accounts for a recurring theme of geographical alienation in the brothers' work.
What Ethan remembered most about growing up in Minnesota was "the invisible horizon line. On a grey day, when there's snow on the ground, the sky and the ground are one tone and everyone appears to be hanging in mid-air".
Not surprisingly in a climate like that, the Coen boys ended up watching a lot of TV. Some of the old films they saw inspired them, and in the mid-1960s they mowed neighbours' lawns to save enough money to buy a Vivitar Super-8 movie camera. With a few friends they began remaking shows and movies they'd seen on TV before eventually writing jokey original screenplays of their own.
The brothers' love of movies persisted into adulthood, and older sibling Joel spent four years studying film at New York University. Ethan went to Princeton and studied philosophy: his senior thesis was forbiddingly entitled 'Two views of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy'.
The Coens, then, were not your average Hollywood hacks, and when they raised the finance to make their first feature film in 1984, they produced something fresh and distinctive.
Blood Simple was a short, sharp, nasty and very clever thriller inspired by 1940s noir classics such as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, but shot with breathless pace and efficiency. Dan Hedaya played the owner of a Texas bar who hires a detective to find out if his young wife (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him with a bartender, and soon the blood and bullets are flying.
The New York Times called it "a directorial debut of extraordinary promise", while other critics compared the Coens to Hitchcock and Orson Welles. It was a pretty good start, and Joel topped off a great year by marrying McDormand.
The brothers showed their versatility by switching to comedy for their next outing, 1987 cult hit Raising Arizona. Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter played an infertile couple who decide to steal one of a furniture tycoon's newly arrived quintuplets, leading to a frantic chase across America.
Not for the first time, the brothers evoked the half-forgotten ghost of 1940s screwball filmmaker Preston Sturges in a movie that included many elements that would become Coen trademarks – high symbolism, deadpan humour, biblical references and high-falutin' dialogue.
If Blood Simple and Raising Arizona ironically reimagined the great Hollywood films of the 1940s for a modern audience, the trend continued into the 1990s. And while the knowing irony sometimes overwhelmed Coen films – as in 1994's The Hudsucker Proxy, which too obviously pastiched the films of Sturges and Frank Capra – at times the brothers flew clear of their influences to create something startlingly original.
The 1990 gangster film Miller's Crossing is generally considered one of their very best (see panel), and there was a Kafka-esque grandeur to their Palme d'Or-winning 1991 film Barton Fink, a psychological drama set in a nightmarish Los Angeles hotel where a nervy writer has been confined while he finishes a screenplay.
Sometimes Coen scripts are so frenetically intelligent that their busyness can undermine the integrity of the finished film, but in 1996 the brothers brought a lean simplicity to Fargo, a stylish tragi-comedy that won them their first Oscars (for Best Original Screenplay; while Frances McDormand won Best Actress)
The crime novels of Raymond Chandler collided with Californian stoner culture in the 1998 cult comedy The Big Lebowski, a film so wilfully eccentric it could have been made only by the Coens.
And in the year 2000 the brothers took on The Odyssey, re-fashioning Homer's epic tale in Depression-era Mississippi and turning Ulysses and his crew into a trio of escaped convicts. Bizarrely, O Brother, Where Art Thou? worked, helped along by a fine and self-mocking comic performance from George Clooney.
There has been the odd mis-step, of course. I have no idea why the Coens decided in 2004 to remake the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers and set it in the present-day Deep South, but they did, and it stank. Their 2001 thriller, The Man Who Wasn't There, wasn't all that good either, and led to what has become a common accusation, namely that the Coens are ultimately glib and insincere filmmakers.
Their cleverness is definitely too showy for some tastes, and not everyone appreciates their obsession with cinematic history. But over the years they have become masters of visual storytelling, and when they get everything right, few of their contemporaries can touch them.
Their 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's modern western, No Country For Old Men, was bold, brilliant and unflinchingly bleak, containing moments of such stark black comedy that you almost felt guilty for laughing. It won four Oscars, including best picture, and finally established the Coens in the frontline of American cinema.
No Country For Old Men also did very good business at the box office, and the brothers might have considered striking while the iron was hot and making another relatively mainstream movie.
Instead, they made A Serious Man, a slow-moving character drama about a harried Jewish physics professor who finds out he has cancer.
God bless them.