Sacred Matters of Coen

Elijah Siegler

The following is an excerpt from Coen—Framing Religion in Amoral Order, edited by Elijah Siegler. Copyright © 2016 by Baylor University Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.

“Dull Debates about Sincerity”

For years the debate was whether the Coens had any serious background or interest in religion at all. Certainly it was there in their movies—but was religion just one more element in their ironic postmodern mix of genre, American folklore, and popular culture? Religiously minded viewers could have been reading too much into it. David Haglund argues that the suspicion that even if there were “religion” in their movies, it might not be meant to be taken seriously, extends to a general skepticism about their intentions.

A lot of moviegoers, and a good number of critics, are, in some sense, skeptical of the Coens, dubious of their intentions. No one says that they are bad at what they do, or that their best work is behind them—given their obvious skill and their recent run of movies (almost universally acknowledged to be as good as anything they’ve done), it would be ridiculous to say so. But even in positive reviews, a note of doubt often creeps in. Are the Coens just fooling around? Are they mocking their characters? Are they mocking us?

I am skeptical of this line of questioning. It implies that if the Coen brothers are religious they must be sincere. If their intentions are doubtful, or if they employ irony or mockery, then they must not be “really” religious. Many in religious studies will recognize the Protestant bias in this syllogism. The Protestant influence on modern ideas about religion has made sincerity and good intentions defining features of good religiosity. Scholars of religion do their best work when their analysis reaches beyond sincere beliefs to include arguments, performances, tricks, lies, or games. In any case, with their fourteenth and fifteenth films, one year apart, the Coens tipped their hand. Religion appeared to be everywhere in these two films. A Serious Man was both their most religious film and their most autobiographical. (They grew up in a semiobservant Jewish home. Their mother’s orthodox upbringing led her to send her sons to “Hebrew school five days a week after school from second grade on.”) A Serious Man did not just mine Judaism for cultural comedy (Yiddishisms, stereotypes) as Woody Allen does, but, as Gabriel Levy argues in this volume, the Coens engage with rabbinic traditions of hermeneutics, ethics, and folklore.

A year later, the Coens offered us True Grit, a remake of a John Wayne Western. Critics found it light and accessible, positively “un-Coen like” and the fact that the film was their biggest box office hit (perhaps in part due to its featuring Hollywood stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon) seemed to confirm its flimsy status. But several other critics (notably Stanley Fish and Armond White), perhaps more attuned to religious matters, noticed how central the Calvinist idea of God’s grace featured in the movie’s dialogue, soundtrack, and visual grammar. (This is only partially true: as Michael J. Altman points out in these pages, True Grit is best seen as a post-Protestant film.)

After viewing these two films, it became possible—even necessary—to read back to the beginning of the Coens’ filmography and see that their films were “seriously” religious all along. Or in the words of critic Mike D’Angelo, “Each picture, regardless of personal opinion, fits snugly into a long-term argument that can finally, after all the dull debates about their sincerity or their derisive lack thereof, be clearly perceived.”

Did we really miss the fact that Raising Arizona has a dozen or more biblical allusions, that the hero of Miller’s Crossing is addressed as “Jesus” almost thirty times, that The Hudsucker Proxy wears its Buddhist influences on its sleeve?

If we had to guess, we might attribute this prominent use of conventional religious themes to Ethan more than to Joel. Ethan has a degree in philosophy from Princeton (Joel studied film at New York University) and writes plays, short stories, and poems on the side. These writings regularly play with religious tropes. His short story “The Old Country” in his 1998 collection Gates of Eden has a Hebrew school setting, perhaps anticipating A Serious Man. His first book of poems, The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way, has as its centerpiece a collection of religiously scatological limericks. In his first poem of his second collection, The Day the World Ends, Ethan Coen writes that “We sheep” (the title of the poem) will “chew on until Apocalypse.” And of the three short one-act plays that make up his 2008 theatre piece, Almost an Evening, one takes place in hell and the other is a debate between the Gods of the Old Testament and of the New.

American Mythology

Most of the contributors to this volume teach and study American religious history. These scholars are uniquely qualified to make a contribution to “Coen studies” because the Coens’ subject is, more than anything else, the mythological landscape of America. Mythology is one of the basic units of analysis in religious studies, generally defined as an authoritative story taking place in a time and place not our own but imparting a truth to the culture that created it.

Unlike any other American filmmaker to whom they might be compared (Wes Anderson to Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh to Martin Scorsese), the Coens have never shot a film outside the country (with two notable exceptions: a five-minute short for the anthology film Paris Je T’aime was shot in the Paris Metro—but even here, the protagonist is an American tourist, played by Coen regular Steve Buscemi—and a few scenes of No Country take place just over the US border in Mexico). Instead, their films take place in ten states, plus DC, and each film feels emplaced, localized. No Coen film uses, say, Toronto or Vancouver to stand in for a generic US city. Even Miller’s Crossing, their one film that never refers to any specific location, by virtue of the city it was made in (New Orleans), has a real sense of geographical particularity.

The Coens’ movies are not only set in particular American places but in particular American years. Some are set in the generic present but the vast majority are set in very specific times: fall 1941 (Barton Fink), New Year’s Eve 1958 (The Hudsucker Proxy), the winter of 1987 (Fargo). A significant number of their films are set at the beginning of decades, which are often seen retrospectively as transitional periods in American history, spaces in between the major eras. These include Inside Llewyn Davis, set in 1961; No Country for Old Men, set in 1980; and The Big Lebowski, set in 1991.

The specificity of time (and place) in the Coens’ films does not mean the brothers are aiming for documentary realism, as they themselves state, “Setting a story in the past is a way of further fictionalizing it. It’s not about reminiscence, because our movies are about a past that we have never experienced. It’s more about imagination.”

I would argue that “setting a story in the past” is more than an act of the Coens’ personal imaginations (although they have perhaps the most fertile imaginations in the movie business), but also an act of tapping into the collective national imagination—which is another way of saying American mythology. The Coens eschew triumphalist myth set in eras of the past considered glorious—we have not seen (and probably never will see) a Coen movie about brave American soldiers in the midst of war, or plucky business- men in the Great Depression. The heroes in Coen brothers films are not masters of their time, but subject to larger forces beyond their control. “Something’s coming,” as Sheriff Bell says in No Country for Old Men, referring to the brutal border drug wars of the 1980s, but also a free-floating American apocalypse.

Coen protagonists are placed in mythic times betwixt and between, on the verge of something new they cannot understand, control, or even escape, whether that be the incipient UFO craze in small town California, the sexual revolution that has not quite hit suburban Minnesota, the New Deal’s modernization of the Deep South, Pearl Harbor, or the arrival of Bob Dylan on the New York folk scene. These unstoppable forces that these (male) protagonists face speak to a larger issue: the Coens’ movies consistently critique masculinity.

The Moral Hero

In voiceover, Barton Fink reads a line from the script he is writing, “If you were a man, a real man. . . .” Ulysses Everett McGill wants to be a “bona fide paterfamilias”—even as his estranged wife argues he is not. “What kind of man are you?” is a line repeated several times in The Man Who Wasn’t There; the first line of True Grit is “Is that the man?” and of course in The Big Lebowski, the Dude gets asked, “What makes a man?” In Inside Llewyn Davis, the title character reads the words “What are you doing?” scrawled on the wall of the bathroom stall at a Fred Harvey rest stop, and the same line is spoken by a cop a minute or so later.

These are big questions, but they are not offered up in big, sincere, Oscar-bait monologues; rather, they are woven into daily life, in a glimpse of graffiti, muted voiceovers, lickety-split dialogue. But they do suggest one of the Coens’ persistent themes is undercutting the mythology of the American male-as-hero.

Heroes come in many varieties, from the Homeric to the Campbellian. It would be possible to argue that the Coen brothers’ protagonists fit either bill, and these arguments have in fact been made. Vaughan Roberts maps classical traits of the hero onto characters in three Coen films (but not O Brother, Where Art Thou?). And David Cremean argues that No Country’s Sheriff Bell, by the end of the film, “has become a changed man and, as in the final stage of Campbell’s hero-quest, is bearing a message back to the rest of the world.”

This sounds nice enough, but a survey of their entire filmography will tell us that the true heroes of the Coens’ films are neither the Homeric hero “made on the battlefield” nor Joseph Campbell’s universal redeemer. Not too many of the hero’s thousand faces appear in their films. Rather, their true heroes are those who know their own limitations and who have the moral imagination to see others’ capacity for self-delusion and vanity. Most people, according to the Coens, are motivated by greed and self-interest to perform evil acts. If they fail in their schemes, it is usually because of their stupidity and lack of self-knowledge. This basic bleak situation is best seen in some of the Coen brothers’ most used narrative devices: the botched kidnapping plot and the suitcase full of money. But the Coens’ moral critique extends beyond individual behavior to social institutions. The business satire The Hudsucker Proxy is quite obviously about the evils of corporate capitalism, but the amorality of the American business ethic is also probed in films such as The Man Who Wasn’t There, Raising Arizona, and The Big Lebowski.

In the Coens’ moral universe, there is something worse than quotidian greed and hypocrisy. The Coens clearly take seriously the existence of apocalyptic and unredeemable evil that leaves destruction and spiritual desolation in its wake. This evil is often personified in the Coens’ films as an unstoppable violent killer. Javier Bardem’s Oscar-winning performance as Anton Chigurh is the most notable example, but this figure dates back to Randall Tex Cobb as Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona.

This morally bleak universe is leavened by the Coens’ take on goodness. The hero list would include Miller’s Crossing’s Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), the Dude (Jeff Bridges), Fargo’s Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for this role), and No Country for Old Men’s Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones). These last two have the most in common: both plain- spoken law officers surrounded by evil and violence who embrace the true morality of domesticity and everyday life (Marge, seven months pregnant, buys worms for her husband’s ice-fishing expedition. Ed talks with his wife about their horses).

The Big Lebowski’s Dude’s morality stands out all the more as he faces off against pornographers, nihilists, snobs, frauds, and warmongers. His drunk, stoned, and unemployed status is a kind of saintliness. Indeed, if the narrator (Sam Elliot) of The Big Lebowski is to be trusted, the Dude’s sloth has a redemptive function for the rest of us, as he is “takin’ ’er easy for us sinners.”

In Miller’s Crossing, Tom Reagan must make the “right” decision, despite the fact that it forces him to turn his back on his boss, his girlfriend, and his way of life. Yet, when he does, the society at large returns to “normal.” One scholar calls the film an “elaborate philosophic allegory depicting first and foremost the protagonist’s ascent to self-knowledge and his almost simultaneous discovery of natural right and justice.” Lest one think these are the musings of academics reading too much into a simple gangster yarn (or into the Coens’ entire filmography), note Miller’s Crossing’s first line of dialogue, “It’s a question of ethics.”