Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Big Questions of Joel and Ethan Coen

An article in Christianity Today reflects on the religious themes in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen.

In the cinematic universe of award-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen, morality matters. Good and evil are usually depicted clearly as such; there are rarely shades of gray. Sometimes their camera lingers long on depravity, but they don't neglect the wages of sin, either; wrongdoers reap the consequences of their choices.

The Coen brothers celebrate 25 years of filmmaking this month with the release of their 14th movie, A Serious Man. It's perhaps their most religious work, juggling existential and theological questions in a story that invokes a modern-day Job. As protagonist Larry Gropnik's world begins to fall apart, he consults three rabbis with his Big Questions, only to find that the answers aren't easy—if there are indeed answers.

That's a good way to describe the brothers' opus: a chronic search for truth. Some might argue that the Coens' world is amoral, but a discerning look reveals morality aplenty. Good and evil stand apart from one another as clearly as black and white—or red and white, in the case of their classic crime story, Fargo. Set against the endless snow of the frigid Midwest, it's a movie about greed, about a perfect crime gone horribly awry—in short, about the wake of destruction left by one man's evil ambitions, seen starkly as a crimson trail of blood against the pure white terrain.

Read the whole thing HERE.

I agree with the writer's assessment that the Coen brothers tend to make clear distinctions between good and evil. But they do this without descending in to sentimentalism. This is one of the reasons why No Country For Old Men was a bit of a departure for the Coens.

I love reading Cormac McCarthy. I bought No Country... as soon as it was released. McCarthy's books are, for the most part nihilistic. The one character that is always conspicuously absent is God. In McCarthy's world there seems to be a place for the devil but no place for God. Other than Outer Dark, No Country For Old Men is McCarthy's darkest work. It is, in my mind, darker than Blood Meridian.

And so I was surprised when I saw that the Coen brothers had chosen to bring No Country... to film. It is a bleak and depressing movie which means it is an accurate interpretation of the book. But even with the absence of redemption one cannot escape the utter banality of evil.


Jared said...

There's a great chapel message on this movie by Oliphint called "Revelation of Jesus Christ" in the WTS audio archives. (Bias acknowledged.)

Todd Pruitt said...

I've heard good things about that Dr. Oliphint:)

Ryan H. said...

I'm not quite convinced that NO COUNTRY is actually all that bleak as a novel (I think the film is actually considerably bleaker, and that McCarthy offers a bit more hope in his novel than the film does).

Anyway, I do love McCarthy. BLOOD MERIDIAN stands out as a bonafide masterpiece in the last 30 or so years of literature, a harrowing epic of blood and violence in the roots of American history.

I also love the Coen brothers, quirky though they are, and a study of the moral themes running through their work can be quite interesting. BURN AFTER READING is an interesting film is this regard, though, without much in the way of moral definition.

Todd Pruitt said...

I couldn't disagree more.

No Country has no category for redemption. The moral voice of the novel (the sherrif) is aging and in the end simply gives up. Chigur on the other hand escapes to continue his evil. I Call that bleak.

Ryan H. said...

I think the character of the sheriff's wife brings a note of hope to his story that is otherwise missing from the film (particularly her role in the book's conclusion). It's not a moment of redemption, per se, but it's not all bleakness and despair, either.