The Coen Brothers‘ movies all have a certain sensitivity. Even if you can’t put your finger on what it is, there’s likely something in the air of each of their movies that tells you, “this is a Coen Brothers film.” From their more broad comedies , all the way through to their dark, unforgiving dramas, the film as a whole can be the furthest thing from the previous Coen adventure, and yet, their fingerprints are clear as day. Even within their list of comedies alone, it ranges from vaudevillian to subtle satire, from farcical to bleak. In its simplest terms, the common thread between all of their films is a decision not to waste any page space in the script, and by virtue, any runtime on the screen.
This means that everything serves the story. Imagine Fargo but in Florida. Imagine Inside Llewyn Davis in the present day. They simply wouldn’t work. The setting, both geographical and historical, means something whenever they utilize it. The same can be said for their use of costume design, set dressing, props and hair. It’s especially true of the manner in which their characters speak. A common lesson for new screenwriters is to avoid every character sounding like the writer, and therefore, like each other. But how, then, if we can tell a character was written by the Coen Brothers, aren’t they? ‘t they guilty of this too? In short, it’s the fact that no two Coen characters sound alike that helps us identify them as Coen characters.
The Coen Brothers Give Characters Unique Voices
While filming Fargo, Peter Stormare famously recalls reading the line “where is Pancakes House?” in the script, to which the actor asked his directors, ‘shouldn’t it be Pancake House?’ “And they said, ‘Yes, but you always say it plural.’ So that was it.” says Stormare, “I think they got it from someone they knew. They go through everything very anally.” This subtle choice to add one grammatically incorrect letter was enough to not only create many fans’ new favorite line but also told the actor and the audience that these characters exist within the world the Coens are presenting. That these characters have lives and independent thoughts, just like in real life. That these characters existed long before the opening credits began and will continue to do so beyond the end of the movie. Well… not every character survives anyway, especially in Fargo!
“Welcome to Los An-gull-ees, Mr Fink!” Steve Busciemi‘s bellboy Chet is introduced in the movie Barton Fink in the most peculiar way. In fact, he’s introduced by not being present at all! John Turturro‘s Barton Fink arrives at the hotel he is set to stay at only to find an unmanned check-in desk. Eerie. Something’s up. He dings the bell, only for a hatch to open up behind the desk and up climbs the bellboy. What was he doing down there? They never bother to tell us – but the mystery of the image is so striking, we’re already glued. Strangely, Chet waits until he is entirely upright and presentable, pressing his finger to the bell to stop the ringing before he eventually says a word. How better to illustrate that Fink, the New York playwright, is in a strange new world? The fact that Chet pronounces “Angeles” in the lesser-used but more accurate Spanish way is just the icing on the cake.
Another low-level professional in a bellboy hat is Chet, the elevator operator in The Hudsucker Proxy.In this movie, everyone speaks like a character from a ’50s Billy Wilder movie. Tim Robbins‘ lead character Norville is like an oblivious and excitable Labrador, while Jennifer Jason Leigh, John Mahoney and Paul Newman all speak like mid-Atlantic cigar-munchers, “see?” How then can a smaller character stand out in order to have a full impact when he later returns to advance the plot? Well, as far as the Coens are concerned, they turn that character up to eleven!
“Hi-a Buddy, my name’s Buzz. I got the fuzz. I make the elevator do what she does.” He lifts his elasticated hat up with both gloved hands before robotically offering his hand for Norville to shake. It’s hard to forget a character like that, and again, it shows just how different a world our hero is stepping into in spite of even the “normal” world before also being heightened and animated.
Iconic Details Make Coen Brother Characters More Memorable
When one thinks of Javier Bardem‘s iconic Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Menone may think of his sarcastic tone as he growls the word “Friend-o.” More likely, they’ll recall his unique and peculiar hairstyle or the unorthodox method in which he kills people with a captive bolt stunner. The Coens could have just as easily written every other character in No Country For Old Men as blank canvases and its audience would likely not mind or notice. The character of Chigurh is so complex, interesting and instantly iconic for these reasons that they already succeeded in cementing the film in the public’s memories. In order to highlight how strange this man is, even within his own world, they flesh out the setting with a range of characters, each memorable for how well they highlight Chigurh’s quirks.
“I remember dates, names, numbers. I saw him November the twenty-eighth.” This is one of the first lines given to Woody Harrelson‘s Carson Wells in the same movie. He is hired to identify and neutralize Chigurh, making him an immediate magnet for comparison as a character. This man is also a trained killer who thinks differently from laypeople, so to have him entirely normal would not only undermine his own quirks but also invite a level of humor to just how strange Chigurh is, that we might even begin to laugh at the villain instead of fear him. The Coens balance the scales by giving Wells quirks of his own, just like we all have, but ones that still highlight how dangerous Chigurh is.
Wells’ quirks are that he thinks like a computer, and nothing evades him. “You know, I counted the floors of this building from the street. There’s one missing.” The man he speaks to knows exactly what that secret floor is and is used for, and although it doesn’t affect the plot of the film, it shows us precisely who Wells is in his very first of very few scenes. It also sets Wells up as such a clever and tactical man, that when he is eventually killed by Chigurh, it only makes Chigurh more menacing.
‘The Big Lebowski’ Is a Vessel for Countless Minor Characters
With The Big LebowskiJoel and Ethan Coen set out to write a story in which the most passive and contented man is thrown into a Raymond Chandler-style mystery. Breaking all screenwriting “rules”, this is the least likely and least qualified person to take on this task, making for a hilarious thrill ride. It also allows for the Dude (Jeff Bridges), a character so unique and well-defined that he inspired a real-world religion called “Dudeism”, to somehow be the straight-man among a cavalcade of even zanier yet still believable characters.
Nihilists (one of whom is played by Peter Stormare), a wheelchair-bound millionaire with the same name as the Dude, his gold-digging young wife Bunny (Tara Reid), his tightly-wound assistant (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his nude abstract artist daughter (Julianne Moore). Not to mention arguably the greatest Coen Brothers minor character ever, Jesus (John Turturro). The whole film is narrated by Sam Elliott‘s sarsaparilla-drinking stranger, a cowboy who recites the story to the audience while sitting at a bowling alley bar. It may not make too much sense, but it certainly creates a feeling unique to the film and keeps audiences returning.
Mike Yanagita Says It All
When cooky cop Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) finds herself in the middle of a kindap-cum-murder investigation in Fargoshe takes the time to meet with an old high school friend, the even cookier Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). This turns out to be completely irrelevant to the case, and he cries to her (a clearly married and heavily pregnant woman) hoping she would have been able to cure him of his misery after his wife died. Marge later discovers that Mike’s wife is not dead and that he is an attention-seeker with a questionable mental state. Although this episode feels entirely removed, it does two things:
One: it reinforces that this world, in spite of all its craziness, is a real one and exists outside the plot at the story’s center. Two: it inadvertently inspires Marge to rethink the case despite this scene’s unrelated nature at face value. She realizes that some people are liars and that they can be quite convincing while hiding dark intentions. There are countless ways the Coen Brothers could have had this effect on Marge’s investigation and the film as a whole, but they took the opportunity to introduce Mike Yanagita for one scene, and that’s what makes it a Coen Brothers movie.
One might expect their use of minor characters to make the off-beat worlds we’re introduced to feel more off-beat, but in fact, it’s the opposite. By legitimizing the tone of the world as a whole, the Coen Brothers establish every character as having the potential to be the protagonist of their own ongoing stories. The filmmakers know they’re introducing their audience to a world that is not their own, however, it is the world the protagonist is used to. How then can you relate the new experience of the protagonist (thus making this the most story-worthy chapter of their life) to the experience of the audience who don’t exist in that world? Simple. You personify the world in the minor characters that inhabit it.
In keeping with the mantra that, “there are no small parts,” these characters are only minor characters in terms of screen time, not in terms of their character. The Coen Brothers ensure that the short space of time the audience has to engage with these smaller characters are compensated for with a reason to remember each one. Be it a memorable entrance, manner of speaking, or notable hair and costume. As the hilarious one-scene prostitutes in Fargo would put it, “like I say, he was funny lookin’!”