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The Philosophy of the Coen Brothers ed. By Mark T. Conrad

December 28, 2022

This is the type of book common in film and literary criticism, a collection academic essays from different authors around a common theme. How good the book is depends on the overall coherence to that theme and, obviously, on the quality of the articles themselves. Because these types of books cover the full body of an artist’s work, they can be uneven, depending on the merits of the individual works.

Here, for example, are essays on the Coen brothers films widely recognized as masterpieces (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing) as well as their lesser films (Intolerable Cruelty). How interested you might be in any of these essays really hinges on how you feel about the film discussed.

The Coens are amongst my favorite directors, up there with P.T. Anderson, David Lynch, Denis Villenueve and Tarantino. But in this company, they are also the most hit-and-miss. No Country and The Big Lebowski are two of my favorite films (#1 and #3 on my list, respectively). But they’ve also made some real stinkers.

I’m not fully aligned with popular opinion on the rankings. (Actually, popular opinion is not really aligned. If you look up “Coen Brothers films ranked,” you’ll get some pretty varied lists.) I’ll include my list below. I make no apologies for putting Inside Llewyn Davis and Burn After Reading so high, nor for putting Raising Arizona and Hail Caesar! low on the list (overrated!). I did use the occasion of reading this book to also watch, or rewatch, all their films

That all said, these essays are interesting, often provocative, and elevate the rich subtexts underlying almost all Coen films. For a director pair sometimes criticized as having a nihilistic viewpoint or, worse, for being unserious about everything, Coen films are actually in significant conversation with philosophy, sociology, religion and pop culture, particularly film and literature. They are postmodern to the core, and although a knowledge of the larger cultural or artistic context isn’t required to appreciate their films, it certainly elevates their work. Even, I would argue, saves some of it — I found a whole new appreciation for Intolerable Cruelty, which I didn’t hate to begin with, after reading the essay by Shai Biderman and William J. Devlin about its themes on justice.

But the essays I enjoyed the most were mostly for the Coen films I enjoy the most. Douglas McFarland has two great essays in here, “Philosophies of Comedy in O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “No Country for Old Men as Moral Philosophy.” Richard Gilmore also has a great essay on No Country. And Matthew K. Douglass and Jerry L. Walls have an enjoyable essay about “Laziness as a Virtue” in The Big Lebowski.

Not that many other people are going to watch all the Coen Brothers films, but if you are, this book is a solid companion.

And now, my rankings of Coen Brothers films, best to worst.

  1. No Country for Old Men
  2. Fargo
  3. The Big Lebowski
  4. Miller’s Crossing
  5. The Tragedy of Macbeth*
  6. Inside Llewyn Davis
  7. True Grit
  8. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  9. Burn After Reading
  10. Barton Fink
  11. The Man Who Wasn’t There
  12. A Serious Man
  13. The Hudsucker Proxy
  14. Blood Simple
  15. Raising Arizona
  16. O Brother Where Art Thou
  17. Intolerable Cruelty
  18. Hail, Caesar!
  19. The Ladykillers

* I debated whether to include Macbeth or not, since it was only Joel Coen and not the two of them.

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