At this point in their careers, Joel and Ethan Coen can literally do anything they want to do. They can write whatever they want to write, and chances are they’ll get whatever money they need to get the movie made, but with such a long and diverse career behind them, what could possibly be their next step? Can they continue making movies that seem unique and different from their previous work? Can they continue to be critics and awards darlings while still having commercial success?
Lots of filmmakers have had long, interesting and diverse careers that have taken them well into old age, something that hasn’t stopped them from making films. Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood are three great examples of this and at least the latter two have diversified their creative output from one movie to the next. Then you have a younger generation like Paul Thomas Anderson who hasn’t made the same movie or kind of movie more than once, or someone like Wes Anderson who has created a niche for himself by making movies of a certain style and demeanor. (One thing Anderson has in common with the Coens is that he often uses the same actors in his movies, maintaining some consistency.)
The Coens are considerably younger than the first three filmmakers–the older Joel will turn 50 this year–so they’re in a different place in their career even though they’ve been making movies since way back in 1984, so that’s 30 years and 16 films (not including shorts). They had their biggest hit to date with the 2010 remake of True Grit, which grossed $171 million, which also made it the highest-grossing Western of all time, just over Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Before that, their highest-grossing movie was No Country for Old Men with almost $100 million less. But then after True Grit, the Coens disappeared for a years to write and develop Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie that has barely grossed $15 million and was pretty much snubbed at the Oscars.
So if you’re the Coens, what do you do? (Again, besides anything you want.)
There’s a lot of directions they can go, but at this point one would think doing a straight comedy might be their wisest move and maybe bringing back some of their big guns like Clooney wouldn’t hurt, but frankly, I’d love to see them try to reinvent themselves, work with new people, do something unexpected or different. In other words, try to not make another “Coen Brothers movie.”
That actually worked well for them when they adapted Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, which still has the feel of earlier Coen work, but also feels like something new. So far, it’s only been the Coens’ attempts at farcical mainstream comedies like Burn After Reading and The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty where they have tended to falter, but surely there’s a middle ground. Another option would be to do another adaptation since “No Country” and True Grit worked out so well for them.
What’s nice is that for every mainstream comedy or awards-grabbing film they do, they always have something off the wall and original in the wings like A Serious Man with Michael Stuhlbarg or Inside Llewyn Davis with Oscar Isaac, and that makes them even more impressive as filmmakers than their bigger commercial hits. Surely these are filmmakers who can work with any actor and get the best out of them.
That said, it feels like the Coens need some sort of change in order to keep redefining themselves, something to freshen up their movies so they can continue finding new and younger audiences. And I’m not talking about making movies with Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber either, but something that will get new people to go see a movie from the Coens and then go back and rediscover their astonishing filmography. Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, The Man Who Wasn’t There–there are so many good movies during the early years of their career that few moviegoers under 20 would know about.
It’s not like they haven’t been working as they’ve written two screenplays for other directors, the first an adaptation of the 1966 Michael Caine movie Gambit starring Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz, which has yet to see the light of day here. They also wrote the screenplay for Angelina Jolie’s upcoming film Unbroken, about the life of Olympian turned prisoner of war Louis Zamperini, which seems very different for them.
According to IMDb, they also have two other possible projects, one called Hail Caesar, the other a murder mystery called Suburbicon, which George Clooney was attached to way back in 2008. They’ve also been talking for years about adapting Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, although getting projects based on Chabon has proven difficult.
But let’s talk about the Coens’ casting and how they’ve created such a distinct feel to their movies.
The Coens have used many of the same actors over the years–Buscemi, Goodman, Clooney, Frances McDormand, etc.–and that’s what we love about them. Honestly, how many of us would even know Buscemi and Goodman or William H. Macy if not for their work in the Coen brothers’ films? They always were good about casting character actors as leads and it helped create a distinct feel to their films. Even when they started working with the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt, they had the famous actors working outside their comfort zones and playing down their normal looks and charm. There are so many great young actors out there that could really get into the Coens world and bring something new and different.
Adam Driver was fantastic in Inside Llewyn Davis and he seems perfectly suited to lead a Coen Brothers comedy and there’s plenty of other younger generation comics who would be amazing to see what they’d do in a Coen Brothers movie.
Just to go back to Woody Allen as an example, he has barely used the same actor in two consecutive movies with only a few exceptions like Scarlett Johansson and Alec Baldwin. He writes a movie and then finds the best actors for the role and the list of actors who have worked with him probably number well into the hundreds, though that’s what happens when you have such a long and illustrious career.
You know who I’d like to see in a Coen Brothers movie? Maybe some of the newer comic talent from Saturday Night Live like Bill Hader or Will Forte or Kristen Wiig, or even Adam Scott, all of whom could probably bring new interpretations to the Coens’ amazing dialogue and characterizations. What about Lena Dunham? I don’t think the Coens have ever had a woman in their movie quite like the star and creator of HBO’s “Girls,” but she certainly has the timing and delivery to pull it off.
And you know who has never been in a Coen Brothers movie ever? Paul Giamatti. How on earth is that even possible?
Since I don’t know the Coens personally and they’re rather elusive about interviews, no one really knows what they want to achieve with their careers as filmmakers, if anything. Maybe they’re just happy living off the money from their bigger hits and doing a short film as part of an anthology every once in a while.
Hopefully we won’t have to wait another three years for Joel and Ethan to get something going – “Llewyn Davis” certainly has been finished for some time now so maybe they’re coming up with new ideas, but being two of America’s finest filmmakers, I’m hoping they have a return to greatness, not necessarily in terms of awards and such, but just that they make more classics films like Fargo and The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men.
There’s a palpable excitement every time the Coen Brothers reveal their latest film and for them to go more than two years without making and releasing a new movie just seems wrong.
So with that in mind, the comments section below is an open forum. If you’re a fan of the Coens, whether it’s their newer stuff or their earlier movies, go ahead and chime in and let us know how you feel the Coens need to proceed from Inside Llewyn Davis. They probably will do something the complete opposite of anything that might be suggested to them, but that’s partially what makes them two of America’s most intriguing filmmakers.