Accelerating the Contradictions with the Coen Brothers

“Marge’s blank stare at Winter’s dreary landscape.” Photo by Hello Chicago, July 3, 2004. Available via Flickr.

Mark Hulsether

Where in our culture can we go for a moral vision commensurate with the challenges of our time? When I look to US religion, I often despair at the ways it is compromised by a logic of capitalism and pushed to the margins by its tendency to shy away from hard issues. Its abstract proclamations of hope seem ineffectual in the face of our dog-eat-dog economy and imperial commitments. But can a profit-driven industry like Hollywood bring anything better to the table? In their recent film Hail Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen don’t answer this question directly. However, if we approach this film in tandem with the television series that expands on their 1996 film Fargo, they pose the question in fascinating and powerful ways.

For me, a true north compass point for Hollywood’s moral discourse comes at the end of Fargo, when Frances McDormand’s character, small-town sheriff Marge Gunderson, speaks to a mercenary killer:

So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there, and I guess that was your accomplice in the woodchipper….And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know?…And here you are, and it’s a beautiful day. I just don’t understand it.

Amid the Coens’ body of work—often cool and distant, sometimes flirting with nihilism and sensational violence, and by extension opening them to a charge of being “smug misanthropes”  who “skew crypto-conservative”—this scene is a defining place where they drop their mask to articulate the vision behind their best work, including the acclaimed Big Lebowski and underappreciated Inside Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man.

Meanwhile, my personal high watermark for films about Jesus is Monty Python’s Life of Brian , in which a bumbling young man joins the People’s Front of Judea to fight the Romans and is misperceived as a candidate for Messiah, alongside Jesus of Nazareth whom Brian mishears proclaiming “blessed are the cheesemakers.” Brian ends up on a cross singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”—one of the most brilliant critiques of Christian false optimism ever screened, although easy to miss since its hidden depth is the gap between what happens on the screen and what an ideal viewer presupposes.

I may be projecting personal idiosyncrasies when I elevate Fargo and Life of Brian above others in their genres—since I am a native Minnesotan who has relatives who talk like Marge, have a sister who once worked in the Minneapolis suburb where the Coens grew up, and am someone who has enough experience in academia and activism to grasp dozens of jokes in Life of Brian that fly over the heads of my friends. Unlike many Christians I have met, I find it clear that the problem of resisting empire—from the Pax Romana to the Pax Americana—is a basic context for Jesus’s story and by extension for the parts I most care about in the tradition that Jesus started. When Life of Brian needles Christians who are clueless about this, I find it exactly on point.

In any case, if we at least agree that Fargo and Life of Brian are interesting landmarks for comparison—however we judge them—then two new works by or closely related to the Coens will definitely reward our attention. The second season of FX’s Fargo (hereafter Fargo_S2)—the brainchild of Noel Hawley with the Coens as executive producers—expands on the filmic world of Fargo with a reflection on historical memory in contexts of violence. The 2016 release of Hail Caesar! brings the Coens’ probing intelligence into proximity to ideas bubbling behind Life of Brian: satirizing biblical epics, relating religious critiques of empire to foibles of the sectarian left, and exploring how the manifold hypocrisies of everyday Christians relate to behaviors of Christians at their best—roughly the same gap as cheesemaking versus peacemaking.

If the script for critique in US religion is sadly relatable to Brian whistling about the bright side of life, what might we see if we approach Hail Caesar and Fargo_S2 seeking added depth? The first thing to notice is how legacies of Hollywood censorship—elegantly sliced and diced in Hail Caesar!—make it hard to inhabit genres that are overtly preachy or moralizing. Filmmakers often face a choice between distancing themselves from past genres or falling flat. This dynamic has transformed cops-and-robbers genres so that today—after landmark works like The Godfather, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad—plots typically have murky distinctions between good and evil and shy away from neat resolutions. The challenge is acute for films approaching Christianity directly, as Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments did in earlier years. Notwithstanding exceptions, the major terrain on which today’s film and television approaches religion demands a sort of via negativa. Either the moral compass is evoked implicitly as a road not taken, or must be understated yet bright enough to shine through layers of irony.

All this leads toward a challenge of relating consumerism’s logic of frothy amoral entertainment—often featuring spectacles of violence—to the representation of alternative moral logics. In the Coens’ work, alternatives are often signaled obliquely—as when the protagonist of Inside Llewyn Davis sings a heartbreaking lament only to hear “I don’t see a lot of money here”—or marked by absence as when Burn After Reading paints an absurdist picture of narcissism that provokes a bureaucrat to shrug and tell his underling to get back to him whenever it makes sense (that is, never). Sometimes, as in The Man Who Wasn’t There and a scene echoing it in Fargo_S2, UFOs evoke a sense of mysterious transcendence. Framing scenes in Burn After Reading that zoom down to Washington DC from outer space provoke related thoughts.

The Coens also introduce religion directly. A Serious Man delves deeply into their Judaism, retelling the Biblical story of Job in a 1960s suburb and mingling the everyday foibles of synagogue life with rock music, sitcoms like F Troop, and an esoteric map of the universe called the Mentaculus. True Grit relates the violence in classic Western films to Bible verses about justice, retribution, and grace—and from there we can easily extrapolate to No Country for Old Men and The Big Lebowski.

In Hail Caesar! the alternative logics—Christianity and Marxian cultural theory—are presented in a way that would nearly be heavy-handed if not for the Coens’ tongue-in-cheek style and fast-moving plot. They stage an elaborate dialog—flagged as a “dialectic” between structural imperatives of capitalism and cultural critique—relating these alternative orientations to a range of temptations from the trivial to the world-historical. The film begins and ends with Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix character, whose job is to keep a Hollywood studio running smoothly, in a confessional under a huge crucifix. As Francine Prose comments in the New York Review of Books, “what [Mannix is] really confessing to is the vapidity, the much-ado-about-nothingness of how he lives”—its “essential cheapness and falsity” notwithstanding its manifold charms evidenced in brilliant homages such as a Busby Berkeley style water ballet complete with a whale, a live orchestra, and Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid princess.

“Hail Caesar!, Scarlett Johansson.” Photo by Ma_Co2013, March 6, 2016. Available via Flickr.

The film’s resonance comes from tensions between such captivating images and underlying questions relating both to theology—as when Mannix asks a rabbi and three Christian clerics how to screen Jesus without offending anyone—and a group of Hollywood Marxists, one of them none other than the famed theorist Herbert Marcuse. I fully concur with Prose that it is “admirable and heroic of the Coens to imagine a wide audience” for this conversation and release it on a weekend when Kung Fu Panda 3 dominated the box office.

If we lose sight of this tension, the film reduces to the lightweight effort that some critics perceive. The plot may appear as a thin thread on which to hang homages that are engaging but do not add up to much. In Public Seminar,  Michael Quirk called Hail Caesar! an “example of the very schlock [the Coens] are lampooning.” Yet he barely noticed the framing scenes in the confessional or omnipresent theological jokes such as a running gag about Johansson as an anti-Virgin-Mary who is pregnant with no father in sight until she marries a man named Joseph. Quirk treats the Biblical film within the film—also entitled Hail Caesar!—as just one set piece among others: the water ballet, a homoerotic tap-dancing ensemble, a mock-serious satire of Soviet realism featuring a tiny yapping dog, and more.

On the other hand, other critics swing the pendulum the opposite way. In National Review, Ross Douthat judged that “the studio plays like, well, a devout Catholic’s idea of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” In Religion Dispatches, Elijah Siegler unpacks many religious allusions—most importantly Mannix’s temptation by the devil in the form of a Lockheed recruiter—in line with his hypothesis that Mannix “serv[es] as a Jesus figure” bestowing forgiveness and controlling the action.

These critics do not zero in on what makes the film most resonant—that Mannix is an all-too-human focal point (not a Christ figure in the typical sense) for negotiating the complicated mess. So also, to a lesser degree, is George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock character, who is kidnapped and indoctrinated by Communists while starring in the Biblical epic. Both must navigate amid the poles of religious virtue, proletarian uplift, and pursuit of profit through spectacle. Thus the film becomes a reflection on how Hollywood, Christianity, and the left not only intersect and blur, but more pointedly have tensions as they push against each other. The studio is less a giant metaphor for Christianity with Mannix in the role of God’s son—although Mannix does slyly ask the clergy, “Don’t we all have a little bit of God in us?”—and more a controlled environment for making choices among these poles.

The scene that ties Hail Caesar! together—its analogue to Marge’s speech in Fargo—comes when Mannix and his confessor agree that one should always resist temptation and do what God thinks is right, especially when it is difficult to do so. Further, one’s best instincts are the voice of God within, telling one what is right. By this time we know that temptation ranges all the way from sneaking cigarettes behind your spouse’s back to exploding nuclear bombs. Lockheed describes the latter as embracing the “real world” over a “frivolous” and fading world of make-believe, while Mannix calls Lockheed’s reality “Armageddon.”

Just before this scene, Mannix tries to slap some sense into Whitlock—who after playing a witless dope throughout the film has just offered a thoughtful comment about Hollywood as a cog in a system that distracts people with bread and circuses. Mannix orders Whitlock to get on the soundstage and show some faith. . . which he ought to be able to do as an actor. If this is not sufficiently ambiguous, it is also not entirely clear whether slapping Whitlock was the right thing—since Mannix repents it in the confessional, it parallels a scene when he slaps an actress for taking an after-hours modeling gig that seems no more scandalous than sneaking a cigarette, and the humor hinges on the dim Whitlock catching on to something obvious. In any case, when Whitlock proceeds to make a pious speech about Christian universalism versus empire at the foot of a cross—played for laughs as satire—he forgets the climactic word “faith.” Jesus receives even less screen time than in Life of Brian; we learn only that he is blonde, his real name is Todd, and he is unsure if he is entitled to a hot lunch as a principal or is just another extra.

None of this undercuts the force of the speech about doing God’s will, nor the idea that one should pursue one’s calling rather than selling out for an easier life. However, it does leave practical decisions unclear. The upshot is less to answer the questions raised by the film than to deepen the questions using a via negativa. Underlining this point, the cowboy actor Hobie Doyle, producer Laurence Laurentz, and the Communists all repeatedly use variations on the phrase “would that it were so simple.” In effect the hapless leftists wind up with a large share of the last word—not as role models for praxis but because they zero in on the contradictions of our culture as the Coen brothers boil it down.

Bringing the television series back into view, in Fargo_S2 another scene evokes Marge’s speech from the film and adds darker resonance. It comes after a massacre in Sioux Falls and other brutalities that ensue when the people of Luverne, Minnesota, become embroiled in a turf war between the Fargo-based Gerhardt crime family and a Kansas City syndicate that is encroaching on their territory. Sheriff Lou Solverson and his daughter Molly (anchoring the first two seasons of the series, set before and after events in the film Fargo) are trying to do the right thing but are hard-pressed to survive a tsunami of violence. So is Jean Smart’s superb Floyd Gerhardt character, who struggles to hold her family together in one of several places where the gender representations in Fargo_S2 are more interesting than in kindred shows such as Breaking Bad.

Fargo_S2’s vision of our problems is grim. This is just one of seven parts in a projected series unpacking a history of violence in the Midwest, reaching back to the takeover of Native lands by settler colonialists—and there seem to be gangsters in every decade. Fargo_S2 opens with a flashback to Ronald Reagan acting in a film about an earlier Sioux Falls massacre—ancestors of white Minnesotans killing Lakotas—then goes on to explore how anti-Native racism affects Zahn McClarnon’s Hanzee character, who turns on the family that takes him for granted. It is hard to say whether Fargo_S2 imagines the violence more as a historical constant or a downward spiral. Either way it takes place in 1979, with disillusionment after the 1960s rising and foreboding in the air. Reagan has not yet come to power, although he brings his Presidential campaign to Luverne. Fargo_S2 is structured like A Serious Man ends—with a tornado gathering force on the horizon.

Lest we are tempted by a shallow version of Hail Caesar!’s advice to follow the voice within, in Fargo_S2 the voice being followed is within Kirsten Dunst’s compelling Peggy Blumquist character. Peggy is undergoing just enough of a 1970s-style feminist awakening to be sympathetic—it makes perfect sense that she wants to escape Luverne—but she also causes a non-trivial share of the death count by being spectacularly self-absorbed in her quest to become “fully actualized.” In the back of a cop car, Peggy rambles about her problems, barely noticing that her own husband is among the victims. Lou counters simply that “people have died”—which has extra resonance because his spouse, Molly’s mother, is dying of cancer. She received a placebo rather than medicine in a drug test.

In sum, evils and distractions are overwhelming. Hail Caesar!’s refrain “it’s not simple” also echoes through Fargo_S2, and Mannix, Lou, and Molly do well to make it through without losing their souls. Taken together, these two works read as fine efforts to “accelerate the contradictions” (as Hail Caesar!’s Marxists would say) by embedding profound social commentary within state of the art entertainment.

Someone could object that the ironies and sensationalism are so thick that my reading—or any moral reading—is forced and the practical meaning is undecidable, thus opening a door to cynical resignation. This returns us to how personal idiosyncrasies shape interpretations. We know there is slippage between what filmmakers produce and how viewers receive it. The craft of popular culture includes purposeful ambiguities to exploit this gap, as Hollywood tries to be all things to all people. When the Coens use thick registers of irony they compound the dynamic.

Could someone read the classic version of Fargo as proposing that gangsters have the best understanding of the world and mocking Marge as lovable but out of touch fantasy? Could the film be reduced to making fun out of unmasking the violence behind “Minnesota nice”? Surely Fargo can be read this way—some of my relatives who talk like Marge do read it this way. And it is not all bad to press hard enough to make such relatives squirm; this relates to the problem where we started—shallow religious discourse that shies away from harsher dimensions of life.

Nevertheless Fargo does have a preferred reading—it valorizes Marge as wise, courageous, and commendable in almost every way besides her goofy accent. Its ironies are not so thick that viewers should identify equally with Steve Buscemi being fed into a wood-chipper. In fact, if the ironies are heavy enough to prevent viewers from identifying wholeheartedly with Marge—when the salient alternatives are either killers or Peggy’s new age positivity—then the Coens may be asking us to identify with the point of view of extra-terrestrials. People in Fargo_S2 repeatedly observe that everything is so “FUBAR” (shorthand for “F&#!@D up beyond all repair”) that all roads to credible solutions are blocked. In this context, UFOs arrive partly to intervene in the massacre (although partly just to observe it)—which seems to be an open-ended allusion to mysteries in the ballpark of Jewish or Christian theologies.

Some viewers might worry less that Hail Caesar! and Fargo_S2 are morally ambiguous and more that they flirt with conservatism, valorizing times when lines between good and evil seemed clearer. Fargo_S2 does hint at nostalgia for small-town life before the Reagan era—albeit with such intense qualification and irony that we could debate whether anything survives intact. Still, the local heroes do note that their moral universe seemed halfway coherent during World War II, but becoming increasingly FUBAR during the Vietnam era. There is also decline internal to Fargo_S2’s gangster traditions. Floyd’s family suffers catastrophe despite her valiant efforts, and the Kansas City hired gun who expects a reward for his bloodletting ends up in a corporate cubicle doing soulless number crunching.

Meanwhile, Hail Caesar! shows clear affection for the 1950s. It signals its awareness of the era’s racism and sexism without seeming too concerned, and its Communists are ridiculous even if not very dangerous. Further, we could interpret Hobie’s cowboy character as a commentary on Reagan, who starred in similar films and led the Screen Actor’s Guild during years when Hollywood blacklisted leftists. Hobie turns out to be surprisingly smart and courageous for a character who may stand in for a young Reagan, teaming up with Mannix to rescue Whitlock after beginning the film as a dolt.

Nevertheless it would be harsh and misleading to read these works mainly as ambiguous in their critiques—reducing to mere sensationalism—or as primarily conservative and escapist when they evoke simpler times or the perspective of UFOs. Here again we can use Marge’s intelligence and courage as a north star. Granted, Marge is partly a joke—slightly goofy and too good to be true, as if from a mythic place out of touch with the bloody events she negotiates. Nevertheless her story carries great power for thinking about our world. Something similar is true for the people of Fargo_S2 and Mannix’s efforts to work within Hollywood’s contradictions to do the right thing. These are captivating characters, set in contexts too unsettling to teach complacency or nostalgia.

If one had been hoping for straightforward “positive” uplift—something in the vein of “forging a New Man” with Communists, “making America great again” with Republicans, or proclaiming universal salvation—then the Coens’ imaginative world may seem too circumscribed and cynical. Yet it is no easier to screen credible forms of such uplift than to revitalize Biblical epics. Sometimes what we need is unflinching reflection on the breadth and depth of our challenges. Can Hollywood pose such questions forcefully—taking full measure of human folly and embedded historical evil—and present them in forms that circulate widely in popular culture? I think it can, and that Hail Caesar! and Fargo_S2 are exemplary cases.

From Marge’s classic words—“there’s more to life than a little money”—to Hail Caesar!’s “God always wants you to do the right thing,” there is a twisting road with many complications, not to say dialectical contradictions. However, traveling with this compass is rewarding. It presses us to confront a question that is more than worthy: how to survive onslaughts of absurdity and violence with our souls intact.

Mark Hulsether is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Interdisciplinary Program in American Studies at the University of Tennessee whose research centers on the connections between culture, and society in recent US history. He is author of Religion, Culture, and Politics in the Twentieth Century United States (Columbia University Press 2007) and Building a Protestant Left: Christianity and Crisis Magazine, 1941-1993 (University of Tennessee Press 1999).