Thursday Ten - Performances in a Coen Film

December brings a slew of awards contenders to the mainstream fray, none more likely to register than Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis. For this edition of the Thursday Ten, I opted against ranking the Coens’ filmography, instead approaching their work through the rich performances they’ve been able to extract from their eclectic casts. The directorial duo introduced actors like Frances McDormand, Javier Bardem, and Hailee Steinfeld to mainstream audiences - with Inside Llewyn Davis’ Oscar Isaac joining good company. The following ten performances are reflective of the director’s innate ability to provoke the very best out of everyone they work with - the Midas touch if there ever was one.

Nicolas Cage as H.I. McDunnough
(Raising Arizona, 1987)

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The Coens’ brand of comedy took a little getting used to and Raising Arizona, which might be the missing link between Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson, could not have functioned without a surprisingly subdued Nicolas Cage at its center. Cage’s intensity has become a joke nowadays but it’s hard to believe another actor being capable of properly calibrating a performance that requires fits of slack-jawed yokel-ness with bouts of tenderness. The required tenderness that Cage provides H.I. may be peripheral to the comic intentions of the film, but when you look at the picture on the whole, Raising Arizona is just about a guy trying to coast through life the best way he can. Actually, that just about describes all of the Coens’ lead characters…

Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane
(The Man Who Wasn’t There, 2001)

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One of the more underseen entries into the Coens’ catalogue is The Man Who Wasn’t There but it’s also one of their best. The ludicrous Coen plotting is provided a measure of seriousness through Billy Bob Thornton’s laconically glib delivery, which cuts though the film like a knife. It’s a calculated exercise in what’s essentially an exercise in noir tendencies intermingled with a character who just doesn’t give a fuck. Thornton’s Arkansan narrations provide a restrained and deliberate flow to the picture, in one of those rare moments where the character is dictating where the action flows in a Coen film. The thing is that Ed Crane isn’t a particularly strong character nor is he especially smart - he’s merely a man who goes at his own pace and doesn’t care if he lags behind.

Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh
(No Country for Old Men, 2007)

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Much like Billy Bob Thornton’s role, Javier Bardem is a character who rarely speaks. But unlike Thornton, who has the benefit of narration to propel his narrative, Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is a man motivated by violence. Sporting a cattle gun, he’s a deliberate man who moves swiftly with intentions of violence. No Country for Old Men marks the Coens’ ascension to critical and commercial acceptance that they’re enjoying to this day. The picture’s success can be, in no small part, contributed to Bardem’s sinister performance. From the measured delivery of dialogue to comfortable posture, Bardem’s chilling performance illustrates the difference between an on-paper psycho killer and the manifestation of death itself.  

M. Emmet Walsh as Private Detective
(Blood Simple., 1984)

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Before Javier Bardem had the chance to play the role of death itself, a less-broad conceptualization of death spawned out of the Coens’ debut feature. M. Emmet Walsh submits a performance so fraught with sleaze that his character’s name isn’t even uttered (the lighter he brandishes has his name, Loren, etched into it). But as Private Detective, M. Emmet Walsh functions as voyeur, murderer and double-crosser, often at the same time. While his perpetually sweaty demeanor and size may suggest that he’s a bit of an oaf, it’s in Blood Simple’s final scenes where he stalks his prey with a sort of superhuman audacity. Appearances can be deceiving.

John Goodman as Charlie Meadows
(Barton Fink, 1991)

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There’s a light-hearted tenderness to much of John Goodman’s actions throughout the majority of his roles. From his bit parts in other Coen films like Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Inside Llewyn Davis, Goodman may register as conventionally amoral but his actions are often underlined by acts of loyalty and general goodness. So, in a film like Barton Fink, to see him come across as an initially good character is him playing against type. Yet as the film progresses, anxieties rise and he’s afforded a role of such bizarre complexity that it’s hard to describe beyond using the line he proclaims ad nauseum at the end of Barton Fink, “I’ll show you the life of the mind. And he did”.

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis
(Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013)

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Llewyn Davis lost his friend to suicide, doesn’t have a home, doesn’t have any money, and with the looming New York City winter approaching, is ill-prepared with only a corduroy jacket. But when he sings in a dimly lit bar, it’s about the closest thing he gets to an escape. Oscar Isaac may have the best material in the world to work with, but it’s in that incredible vocal performance that he really shapes that escape for Llewyn. Isaac’s performance resonates with all the encumbered hubris, self-denial, and confidence that undoubtedly resonate on the page, but the intrinsic human element that he brings to Llewyn makes even the nastiest of Coen characters into someone you want to root for.

Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson
(Fargo, 1996)

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Concepts of good and evil are often mutually exclusive components in the Coens’ films, but if you were to single out the one character that embodies the absolute goodness in an individual, it’s Marge Gunderson. The pregnant police officer who diligently and politely uncovers the truth behind a series of gruesome murders, Frances McDormand embodies the role in a way no other actress could have. Debuting in Blood Simple, McDormand has been a staple of the Coens’ work (she is, after all, married to Joel Coen) and is the sort of fixture that can balance comedy and terse drama. As Gunderson, McDormand does the heavy emotional lifting, providing the picture with a true sense of ethereal humanism.  

John Turturro as Barton Fink
(Barton Fink, 1991)

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John Turturro often struck me as the sort of actor who would submit an overly enthused take on a character. He’s a hyperactive kind of actor in the slap-stick vein, which can sometimes get the best of him. But he’s subdued in Barton Fink. The hyper-enthusiasm that I associated him with is substituted for a series of nervous tics. Shouldering the writer’s plight is a difficult task that often times gets lost and muddled from script to actor. But Turturro, surprisingly, conveys that very real fear of staring at a blank piece of paper and not knowing where to go. It’s a master-class performance in understatement that proves the wealth of talent at Turturro’s disposal - and the Coens’ ability to draw that out of their actors.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik
(A Serious Man, 2009)

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Not a commonly held belief, but I consider the Larry Gopnik character to be the Coen’s best-written character. Essentially a contemporized Job, Larry Gopnik is a man of many flaws but of inherent loyalty to his faith and family. He’s about as close to a good “everyman” as there could be and the subsequent test (or to put it more bluntly, punishment) he endures presents many questions on spirituality and ethics. Oh, and he’s also just really funny. The Coens may subject their characters to a certain degree of mockery but the questions they ask through this process remain thoroughly engaging. The big question being how Gopnik’s faith can remain steadfast when his God is so abhorrently punishable? Michael Stuhlbarg takes the role of his life as he essentially stares into the vast terrain of the unknown looking bewildered. Most actors would’ve likely upped their tempo but Stuhlbarg plays it straight - really, when staring into the great unknown, the best you can do is try to confront it rationally.

William H. Macy as Jerry Lundegaard
(Fargo, 1996)


A film professor of mine defined Billy Wilder’s filmography through a single thesis statement: man will do anything for money. If there were ever a connective strand between the work of Billy Wilder and the Coens (and there are plenty), I’d start with Jerry Lundegaard. As a character who has his cake and (tries to) eats it too, it’s easy to relate to the sort of selfish struggle that he puts himself through. But it’s so critical to have had William H. Macy in this role; he exudes of the desperate anxieties and solitude that’s needed for the role. The lines in his face and the bags under his eyes are some of the features of his face that sell the character. And coupled with the squeakiness of his voice and pitch-perfect accent he ascribes to, Macy just becomes the character. Macy would go on to take on similar-minded roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia with brilliant results - but they simply can’t touch his portrayal of moral compromise and delusional selfishness like in Fargo.