The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

Serious Movies for Serious Men: The 4 Most Underrated Coen Brothers Films

The Jesus Rolls & The Big Lebowski

Monday, March 9th through Thursday, March 12th


“Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in?

For sighing has become my daily food; my groans pour out like water. 

What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.

I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

– Job 3: 23-26
A Serious Man

He has risen! After some 20 years of rumors and false starts, Jesus Quintana, the unofficial breakout star of The Big Lebowski, has finally got a movie of his own! As much a remake of the French dramedy Going Places as it is a Big Lebowski spin-off, The Jesus Rolls sees John Turturro not only step back into the infamous purple bowling gear but into the director’s chair as well. With supporting performances by Mr. Robot’s Bobby Cannavale, Amelie’s Audrey Tatou, and Christopher “This Is Not Over. BEARS!” Walken, The Jesus will surely have no shortage of eccentric characters to play off of and shout obscenities at. Continuing this week, both The Jesus Rolls and The Big Lebowski will play through Thursday, meaning you can do a double feature for double the Jesus!

It says a lot about The Big Lebowski’s abiding popularity that one of its side characters could get a spin-off movie made over two decades after it came out. It’s a testament to not only the balls to the wall (bowling balls, to be specific) performance of Turturro but the creative vision of brothers/directing team Joel and Ethan Coen that affection for the film and its characters remains as strong as it is today. Colorful characters, sharp dialogue, and genre-bending fun catapulted Lebowski to cult classic status, but they are hardly unique to that particular Coen brothers film. Nor are they the only trademarks of the brothers’ distinctive style: drawing inspiration from such diverse sources as noir fiction, the Bible, and slapstick comedy, their movies have run the gamut from the disarmingly quirky like Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? to the profoundly dark like No Country for Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis. They do both (and everything in between) exceptionally well though, with critics and fans alike holding all five of the aforementioned movies in high regard.

Regrettably though, there are a number of great films by the Coens that don’t receive anywhere near this amount of adulation. Sure, people will praise them because they’re Coen brothers movies, but they will rarely give them the same level of consideration as any of the five mentioned above. So finish off that White Russian, leave the cattle gun at home, and drop the “You betcha”s from your vocabulary because we’re taking a look at the four most underrated Coen brothers films.


Miller's Crossing

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

Being fans of noir, it’s something of a given that the Coens would try their hand at that close relative of the film noir, the gangster movie. What isn’t a given though is that they would not only make one just two films into their career, but that it would be one of their strongest offerings as well (quite the tall order, given the rest of their output). Yet thanks to the brothers’ boldly original direction, Miller’s Crossing cleverly plays with gangster film conventions while still remaining faithful to the spirit and substance of the subgenre.

A virtual parade of excellent performances, everybody, from lead Gabriel Byrne (who’s starred in everything from The Usual Suspects to Hereditary) to bit players like Steve Buscemi, shines here. Coen regulars Jon Polito and Turturro are equally compelling as the honor-impelled Johnny Caspar and the honor-repellent Bernie Birnbaum respectively. Big Fish’s Albert Finney, meanwhile, commands respect as Irish mob boss Leo O’Bannon in what would be his only collaboration with the Coens. 

As commendable as all the actors’ performances are, special recognition must be given to J.E. Freeman as Eddie Dane. A role that was originally conceived as “The Swede” and intended for Peter Stromare (who Lebowksi fans will remember as Karl Hungus), The Dane is a heavy’s heavy, towering over the other characters and not so much as flinching at the thought of committing brutal acts of violence. Thanks to Freeman’s layered portrayal, the character also displays a level of intelligence that, while not quite as high as Byrne’s Tom, makes him a uniquely threatening antagonist. 

“…The Dane is a heavy’s heavy, towering over the other characters and not so much as flinching at the thought of committing brutal acts of violence. Thanks to [J.E.] Freeman’s layered portrayal, the character also displays a level of intelligence that, while not quite as high as [Gabriel] Byrne’s Tom, makes him a uniquely threatening antagonist.”

As driven by its visuals as its story, the Coen brothers offer up an unexpectedly picturesque take on the gangster subgenre with this film. Though set in a decently-sized city, many of Crossing’s most memorable scenes take place in the nearby woods, giving it an earthy, quiet feel one doesn’t typically associate with the Coens, much less crime films. In fact, one such shot – that of the hat in the forest during the opening credits – was actually the very first image the brothers envisioned for the movie, suggesting a certain, cryptic significance for this visual. Adding to the daydream-like quality of the film is the prominent use of transitional fades, the fluidity of which serves as a nice counterbalance to the intrigue-driven, dialogue-heavy plot. 

This doesn’t mean the movie totally shies away from action: on the contrary, the best scene is also the most violent one. I’m referring, of course, to the attempted hit on Leo, with him turning the tables on his would-be assassins and mowing them down all while Frank Patterson’s crushingly beautiful rendition of “Danny Boy” plays. Juggling such disparate elements as Patterson’s song, Michael R. Miller’s quick-fire editing, and the sight of Finney lighting up a gangster with a Tommy gun, the sequence is enlivening but not exploitative, as well as demonstrative of the Coens’ remarkable ability to find aesthetic value in that which is barbaric or base.

An imaginative variation on period crime dramas, Miller’s Crossing finds something new in this tried-and-true subset of genre films and relays it to viewers in the most artistic of ways.


Barton Fink

Barton Fink (1991)

You probably know it from that Simpsons joke, but Barton Fink is much more than the R-rated movie Bart’s friends snuck into. Dealing with writer’s block, that most hateful of conditions, the movie stemmed, appropriately enough, from difficulty the Coens encountered while fleshing out the story for Miller’s Crossing. The finished screenplay would prove to be cathartic not only for the brothers (who promptly completed Crossing after writing it) but for anyone who has ever suffered writer’s block and the existential inertia that comes with it. 

A far cry from his flawlessly flamboyant turn as The Jesus, John Turturro is oddly low-key as Barton. Traces of the typical Turturro madness slip in at moments – him screaming “I’m a writer, you monsters!” at a bunch of sailors during a USO dance, for example – but the high-strung screenwriter has to be one of his more subtle, restrained performances in a Coen brothers film, if not his whole career. The same can’t be said for Michael Lerner, who brings a rabid energy to manic studio head Jack Lipnick that’s bigger than life itself. As likely to kiss Barton as he is to call him a k*ke, Lipnick is an unbelievable character who Lerner somehow makes believable, a feat that even the Motion Picture Academy recognized by giving him an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor.

Long a subject of intense debate as to what genre it belongs to beyond the broad boundaries of black comedy, there’s a surprising case to be made that Barton Fink is a horror film. The hotel Barton stays in is unusually eerie and empty: there are clearly other guests staying there, as evidenced by the shoes left outside the room doors, but the only people we ever see outside staff are Barton and his neighbor Charlie (John “Am I The Only One Here Who Gives A Sh*t About The Rules?!” Goodman). Shot after shot of the establishment’s long, silent hallways drive the creepiness home, with it being almost impossible to not be reminded of The Shining. There’s even elements of mystery as the movie keeps throwing narrative twists and turns that seemingly contradict earlier scenes, creating an unsettling incongruity between what we’re being told and what we’re seeing on-screen. 

“The finished screenplay would prove to be cathartic not only for the [Coen] brothers (who promptly completed [Miller’s] Crossing after writing it) but for anyone who has ever suffered writer’s block and the existential inertia that comes with it.”

Indeed, the real horror comes from the idea that Barton can’t trust anything anyone, even those who are supposed to be guiding him, tells him. When he tells producer Ben Geisler (a delightfully diverting Tony Shalhoub) that he got bit by a mosquito, Geisler dismisses it on account of mosquitos breeding in swamps and LA being a desert. Yet later on, we are treated to a close-up shot of a mosquito in Barton’s room. The fact that one of Barton’s bosses could get such a trivial thing so completely and utterly wrong raises doubts about not only their competence but Barton’s sanity as well. Are these conversations happening exactly the way the movie shows them, or have they been turned into something skewed in Barton’s poor, mosquito bite-ridden head? Which is more terrifying, not being able to trust others’ judgement or your own?

Kafkaesque in its inscrutable interactions and absurdist perspective (to say nothing of its use of insects as symbols of existential despair), Barton Fink is a humorous but troubling meditation on the creative process that will ring disturbingly true for many. 


A Serious Man

A Serious Man (2009)

A little disclosure: my heart holds a very special place for A Serious Man. The first Coen brothers movie that made me aware of them as filmmakers, I was hooked the moment I saw the trailer during the previews for something or other in high school. I never got to see it during its limited theatrical run (there wasn’t an arthouse cinema like the Frida here in Orange County back then, otherwise I probably would have seen it there), but I snapped it up the moment it hit DVD. My patience was both well-deserved and well-rewarded, for the film was nothing less than a cerebrally-stirring retelling of that most enduring of Bible tales, the Book of Job.

Noteworthy enough simply for being Michael Stuhlbarg’s debut in a leading role, this movie still remains one of the surprisingly few where the Shape of Water actor carries a film himself. As physics professor Larry Gopnik, Stuhlbarg is at times angry, distressed, pitiful, but above all, he’s confused. He’s confused about why his wife wants to divorce him, he’s confused about why someone is writing horrible letters about him to his school’s tenure committee, and he’s confused about why God is letting it all happen to him. Brought to worried life by Stuhlbarg’s lilting voice and perplexed expressions, Larry is the modern-day Job our secular world needs. 

And need him we do, because the Serious Man universe is as cold as it is enigmatic. We never do learn why all these bad things are happening to such a good guy: for that matter, we never learn why there were Hebrew letters engraved in the teeth of Rabbi Nachtner’s goy, or whether Reb Groshkover from the Eastern Europe-set prologue really was a dybbuk or not. As Larry tells his students though, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle proves that we can’t truly know anything about anything, concluding “So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out.” What quintessentially Coen irony that Larry spends the whole movie asking questions without ever realizing that he had the answer to all of them all along.

“Brought to worried life by [Michael] Stuhlbarg’s lilting voice and perplexed expressions, Larry is the modern-day Job our secular world needs.”

Yet in spite of the movie’s depressing disposition, the Coens’ aptitude for finding humor in the most unlikely of places is amply on display here. Much of it is found in the deadpan delivery of the cast members: Larry opines that his dispute with Korean student Clive over a refused bribe is not a “culture clash” because it would have to be “the custom in your land to bribe people for their grades”, while his attorney Don, after hearing Larry consulted Rabbi Nachtner, pinches his voice as he asks, “Did he tell you about the goy’s teeth?” The funniest moment, however, has to be when the elusive Rabbi Marshak, after being built up as an endlessly wise sage by the other characters, begins his first and only speaking scene by quoting not the Torah or Talmud but the opening verse of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”. It’s a pricelessly subversive scene, as well as one that had me dying with laughter when I first saw the movie 10 years ago.

As stimulating as the questions it asks and as puzzling as the non-answers it gives, there’s little doubt that A Serious Man is one of the Coens’ smartest movies as well as one of the smartest in recent film history.


Raising Arizona

Raising Arizona (1987)

The Coens’ very second movie, Raising Arizona still enjoys warm feelings among viewers but little of the critical appreciation showered on the brothers’ other work. This might be because the cartoony tone and straightforward plot lead people to believe that it’s less profound than, say, No Country for Old Men. Yet it’s these very elements that make the movie so fresh and so funny, qualities that are sorely needed for a story like this one: that is, a story of an unlikely, unfruitful couple, ex-con Hi (Nicolas Cage) and ex-cop Ed (Elastigirl herself, Holly Hunter), and their desperate plan to kidnap a baby so they can raise him as their own.

It’s strange enough seeing a then-22-year-old Cage in this movie, but it’s downright astonishing that he plays a relatively normal guy. A crook, yes, but not the hotheaded weirdo we’d later come to know and love him as. This is because, in the wacky world of Arizona, everybody’s kind of (or rather, really) looney tuney, to the extent that it’s almost shocking that the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote aren’t included among the characters Hi encounters. There’s John Goodman (in his first collaboration with the Coens) and William Forsythe as Gale and Evelle, fellow cons who yell in primal triumph upon escaping prison, and Trey Wilson as Nathan Arizona, Sr., the overly-animated furniture store magnate whose son Hi and Ed kidnap. Then there’s Leonard Smalls (boxer Tex Cobb), an apocalyptic biker/bounty hunter conjured straight out of Hi’s nightmares who blows up bunnies with hand grenades. In short, the cast is a gaggle of goofballs, which fits the movie’s goofy atmosphere just fine. 

What’s most surprising about Arizona though is how much of it’s underlined by a vague but palpable sadness. This stems from the fact that, beneath the zany antics and bright colors, it’s fundamentally a story about the idealized notion of family and the messy reality of it. Hi and Ed, in the most obvious instance, are driven to kidnap Nathan Jr. since they can’t have a child on their own, while Gale and Evelle admonish Ed to breastfeed Nathan Jr. lest he grow up, as a consequence of the resulting psychological damage, to hate her and wind up in prison like them. Even Smalls, chaotically evil as he is, is a victim of the unfulfilled promises of family life, having been sold on the black market when he was an infant. Suddenly, that “Mama didn’t love me” tattoo isn’t so funny – okay, maybe it is, but in a depressing kind of way. 

“What’s most surprising about Arizona though is how much of it’s underlined by a vague but palpable sadness. This stems from the fact that, beneath the bright colors and zany antics, it’s fundamentally a story about the idealized notion of family and the messy reality of it.”

This sense of sorrow also manifests in Carter Burwell’s weirdly haunting score. Making generous use of kitsch-ridden textures like banjos, yodeling, and electric organ as it may, the end result is as sublime as it is silly. From the brooding peril of Smalls’ theme to the poignant lullaby that plays during Hi’s dream of the future, Burwell’s soundtrack is a deeply affecting work that betrays the heartache and hope underlying the film’s surface-level frivolity.

Possessing generous amounts of hilarity and emotional depth, Raising Arizona is a stirring reminder that there’s a special kind of comedy that’s just as likely to tug at your heart as it is to bust your gut.