hmv's Anatomy of a Director: The Coen Brothers (including our review of Inside Llewyn Davis)
In our new monthly feature, we dig deep down into the back catalogue of a top director or actor and chart their rise, from their raw beginnings, their big break, their finest hour and the bump in the road, ending up with their current project. We begin this month with The Coen Brothers…
Raw Beginnings: Blood Simple
The Coens' 1984 debut is a neo-noir, lo-fi cult classic. Shot for a measly $1.5 million, it tells the story of a rich but jealous man who hires a private investigator to kill his wife and her new lover. Naturally, this being the Coens, things don’t exactly go to plan.
Looking back at now, it looks a little shonky, but it demonstrated the pair's flair for mixing black comedy with dark violence and their ability to create a captivating crime narrative. It also featured the first appearance of Francis McDormand, who would go on to star in five more of the brothers' films.
Big Break: Fargo
This film netted the pair their first Oscars and proved to be a box office smash, taking over $60 million despite only having a budget of $7 million.
Fargo is a comedy that's as black as tar and stars William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard, whose inept attempt to kidnap his wife begins a chain of events that gets more bungled with each turn.
The script is laugh out loud funny and the performances, especially from McDormand as the pregnant police chief on Lundegaard's tail, are brilliant. She was justifiably rewarded with an Oscar.
A cross between a caper and a comedy, this remains a brilliant watch to this day.
Their Finest Hour: No Country For Old Men
Everything about this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, from the cinematography to the costumes, Javier Bardem's terrifying turn to Tommy Lee Jones' nonchalant brilliance, the dream-like tone, the witty yet wistful screenplay, the brutality of some scenes and the beauty of others, is pure brilliance.
Released in 2007, it bagged four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Bardem and Best Director for the pair. Watching it back, you can see why.
Bump In The Road: The Ladykillers
Looking back, everything about this is odd. The Coens are men with such original voices and such a distinct take on cinema that it always seemed like an odd decision for them to agree to shape a big-budget remake of a 1955 comedy, a comedy that quite frankly did not need improving.
As knock-about comedies go, it's fine, it's just nothing special, and all the Coens' films are something special.
Still On Top: Inside Llewyn Davis
The latest chapter of the Coen Brothers' fabulous journey is a thing of wonder.
Set in New York's Greenwich Village in 1961, just as the folk scene that spawned the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez is exploding into life, the film follows one week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a struggling singer. Llewyn has recently lost his partner in his folk duo and his new solo album isn't selling well at all. His personal life is also in tatters and he's presently homeless. We follow him as he stumbles from couch to couch, gig to gig and struggles to get a grip on anything.
Oscar Isaac turns in the performance of a lifetime as the film's title character; he's arrogant and seemingly only looking out for himself, traits that could be hugely off-putting in any leading man, but Isaac manages to give the character so much humanity and presence that he carries it off exceptionally.
Carey Mulligan is also great as Davis' angry former flame Jean, while Justin Timberlake is as charming as ever as Jim, a fellow folk singer. Coens' regular John Goodman makes a brief, but brilliantly memorable appearance as jazz musician Roland Turner, while Garrett Hedlund is also wonderful as laconic beat poet Johnny 5.
The film is laced with the stark wit and irreverent sense of humour that every Coens' movie contains; it's tender and wistful, without being either schmaltzy or cynical. It's beautifully shot too, with exceptional period detail and lots of real-life references.
The soundtrack is also a joy. Featuring mostly traditional folk songs performed by Isaac, Timberlake and Mulligan, it's a lilting delight. Mulligan's husband Marcus Mumford helps out on one track, as does legendary bluesman T. Bone Burnet, who acts as the soundtrack's producer.
Inside Llewyn Davis proves, once again, that the Coens are the finest filmmakers on the planet. This is another witty, charming and heart-warming triumph.