To a person raised by Amish wolves deep in the oceans of Europa, much of the appeal of the films of the brothers Coen would make little sense. In making their films, the Coens work off of established genre conventions, twisting and inverting them into strange new forms. In doing so, the Coens operate under an expectation of previous film experience, and exploit these expectations for comedic and dramatic effect. To our hypothetical Anabaptist Jovian wildman, not possessing these preconceived notions of film, much of the nuance and skill of the Coens’ filmmaking would be lost.
In Blood Simple, the Coens take a traditional hardboiled or film noir tale and invert it. Instead of being set in 1940s Chicago or Los Angeles, the film is set in 1980s Texas, imparting a certain Western feel. Instead of being the protagonist or narrator of the film, the private investigator is the main antagonist of the film, and is portrayed quite negatively. At first he is a bumbling, incompetent good ol’ boy, but swiftly transitions into a remorseless murderer for hire, utterly mercenary and unconcerned with traditional noir conflicts of honor or justice.
His target, the cheating wife of his client, is not deadly, conniving, or exceptionally seductive, but is more clueless of the situation than anything, allowing herself to be carried along by the endless chain of mistakes and misunderstandings that drive the plot of the film. In keeping with noir tradition, however, the film is shot through a deeply cynical lens and its conflict is kicked off by a sexual affair. But these too are deconstructed, as the film turns that cynicism inwards at its own foundations, portraying its main characters as impulsive, petty, shortsighted morons too stupid to understand the situation they are in and plan accordingly.
Fargo, as well, is a highly informed take on classic crime conventions, this time moving from arid Texas to rural Minnesota in the middle of winter. In contrast to the jaded but still fundamentally good hardboiled detective called in for one last job, she is a seven months pregnant highway patrol officer. The antagonist isn’t a crime kingpin or an average guy down on his luck in the wrong place at the wrong time, either; instead, he is a petty, venal car salesman in far over his head trying to keep his convoluted scam together. The film dabbles more in the absurd than its predecessor, giving every character (save the two out-of-town hitmen Gaear and Carl) a cloying, over-exaggerated Minnesotan accent. It also adds just enough dark humor to lighten the tension of what would be a grim crime drama, before suddenly breaking the mood with shocking acts of violence.
In much of modernist fiction, from which the hardboiled and noir genres emerged in the early 20th century, the urban setting is an impersonal, dehumanizing thing. A person can easily become lost in the seething underworld of Prohibition Chicago or postwar Los Angeles, and vanish into the anonymous urban crowds. In the films of the Coens, the settings of West Texas and Minnesota serve a similar function, but arrive at it through different means. In traditional noir fiction, it is the teeming urban masses and impersonality of the city that serve to dehumanize and disillusion its characters, but the Coens perform the same route through isolation and an environment that is physically, rather than emotionally, hostile and indifferent to human suffering.
In Blood Simple, the harsh Texan desert and frontier aesthetic of certain characters implies that the setting itself is beyond the trappings of the civilization on whose fringes it resides. Fargo takes this further, making use of a single person silhouetted against a whiteout background. This happens most notably in the mirrored shots of Gaear shooting the fleeing motorist and Marge shooting a fleeing Gaear, and the attempt made by Carl to hide the rest of the ransom money by the highway.
These shots give an impression of the subject being swallowed up by the endless void, subsumed into the wilderness. Rural Minnesota in the winter is bleak, foreboding, and hostile to human life, and it isolates and dehumanizes those who venture too far into it. Bereft of civilization In Fargo, the infamous wood-chipper scene only occurs after Carl and Gaear have fled into the countryside. In Blood Simple, Ray travels far out into the desert when he disposes of Marty in a shallow grave.
On a deeper level, much of the Coens’ distinctive style comes from flaunting expectations. Their characters are driven by greed and selfishness rather than any higher motive (real or purported), and are, with the exception of Margie and the private detective, stupid incompetent, and shortsighted, driving the plot forward with their idiocy and poor planning. The audience does not necessarily empathize or identify with most of the characters, and instead may recoil with shock or disgust at their actions. Oftentimes, the Coen films tend to be brutally, senselessly violent, contrasting with the stylized or romanticized depictions of conflict usually seen in Hollywood and other outlets.
This is apparent in the adaptation of the already bleak No Country for Old Men, which takes many of the deconstructive aspects of Fargo and Blood Simple to the extreme. This violence serves to ground the films in a cynical realism, pulling the audience back from the otherwise stylized environments of the films and into the unvarnished horror that is existence. Sex is also presented frankly in most occasions.
In Fargo, the only sex scene in the film is decidedly unromantic, as Carl and Gaear pick up two unattractive prostitutes at a bar. The camera jumps quickly to the middle of the act, and then just as quickly to the four people watching television post-coitus. Instead of being a climax of a drawn-out plot thread or some otherwise important event, sex is presented as banal and boring.
The films of the brothers Coen cannot be appreciated in a vacuum. They can and should be appreciated in the context of cinema as a whole. Their films are self-referential works exploring the expectations of moviegoers, the characteristics of genre, and the medium of film itself.