The Ten Greatest Coen Brothers Characters (So Far)

The Ten Greatest Coen Brothers Characters (So Far)

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  1.             There are a great many things that set Joel and Ethan Coen apart: their camerawork for one, their distinct writing style for another. But if all the moviegoers in the world had to come together and make a ruling on what the most distinctive aspect of the dynamic Minnesota duo’s canon is, I’d wager it would be their wonderfully unpredictable cavalcade of characters.

                From the Arizona desert to the frigid wastelands of North Dakota, whenever you step into a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, you’re going to encounter someone walking the landscape that you’re not likely to forget. In the interest of provoking discussion among Coen fans, and filling that awful void that comes in between their films, here are my picks for the best.

    10. Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men, 2008

    I’m cheating a little bit right at the start, because Chigurh is not technically a Coen character. Though he was created by novelist Cormac McCarthy, the menacing hired killer with the funky hair was given terrifying form by the Coens and actor Javier Bardem in an Academy Award-winning performance. It’s not just that Chigurh, like so many Coen villains before, carries a relentless, almost supernatural air of indestructibility. It’s the quiet menace with which he stalks his prey, the calm attention to survival even in the direst of moments, and the velocity with which he can shift from bystander to monster. Anyone who watched him strangle a sheriff’s deputy while staring, eyes wide, at the ceiling, has it burned into their cinematic memory for life.

    9. Tom Reagan, Miller’s Crossing, 1990

    Miller’s Crossing has become a largely forgotten film for all but the true Coen faithful, which is a shame, because it’s not only one of the most finely-plotted gangster pictures you’ll ever find, it also contains a bevy of wonderful performances, most notably that of Gabriel Byrne as Tom Reagan, the fedora-dawning gangster forced to walk a thin line of double allegiances in the midst of a mob war. It doesn’t sound like much, I know, but when you see the intricacies woven into Byrne’s finely-tuned performance, you’ll change your mind.

    8. Delmar O’Donnell, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000

    Ah, Delmar, the most loveable character from what might be the Coens’ most-watched film. Delmar’s a follower, a lover, a guy who sticks by his friend, even when his friends are about to kill each other. Tim Blake Nelson’s riotous performance filled with such gems as “Sweet Jesus, Everett, they left his heart!” is one that will have you rolling.

    7. H.I. “Hi” McDunnough, Raising Arizona, 1987

    A very young Nicolas Cage brought this character to larger-than life in the sophomore effort from the Coen. Hi, once a laidback petty crook, is now married to a barren wife who wants nothing more than a baby to warm their trailer. Out of love for her, Hi finds himself in a scheme to kidnap one of famous bunch of quintuplets, and ends up being trapped in what plays like a marvelously bizarre live action Road Runner cartoon. What makes Hi so memorable is not only the in-over-his-head look constantly plastered to his face, but the existential observations offered throughout the flick as his character gives an almost constant, if sometimes silent, monologue underlying the whole film. Hi’s not only a petty crook, he’s also a philosopher, expounding on what he calls “the salad days” as his world implodes, and all we can do is laugh.

    6. Barton Fink, Barton Fink, 1991

    John Turturro gives a nuanced and brilliantly subliminal performance as an acclaimed playwright who moves out to Hollywood to tell stories about “the common man” and ends up being assigned a wrestling picture. The adventure Barton embarks on, a great deal of which seems to be happening in his own head, is one of self-discovery, and Turturro’s wonderful acting in conjunction with the brilliant screenwriting of the Coens gives the impression that we are watching a man who attempts to probe the deepest reaches of the human soul before he’s even really sure what he himself wants. Apart from the obvious depth of the character, there’s simply an oddness to Barton that we can’t look away from.

     5. Loren Visser, Blood Simple, 1984

    To my thinking, Visser, the villain of the Coens’ very first film, serves in many ways as the prototype (a Version 1.0, if you will) for all the evil characters the brothers were destined to cook up in later films. For much of Blood Simple, Visser is simply a slimy opportunist looking to play both sides of a deadly love triangle, but the hint of menace lurking beneath his fly-attracting exterior builds along with the film’s tension, transforming him into a downright beast of a creature by movie’s end. M. Emmet Walsh gives a masterful performance, and seals his place in greatness with a laugh that’s as creepy as it is giggle-inducing (which, of course, just makes it creepier).

    4. Ulysses Everett McGill, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000

    George Clooney gives what might be his best performance as McGill, a con-man fresh out of the pokey who, as it turns out, wants nothing more than to win back his wife and cement his role as the pater familias  after discovering that she’s about to get married and is telling everyone that he got hit by a train. Confident to a fault, yet slick as a dollop of Dapper Dan, McGill, the Coen equivalent to Odysseus, is a character you can’t help but cheer for.

    3. Walter Sobchak, The Big Lebowski, 1998

    Never before and never since has such an angry man been more loveable. John Goodman is brilliant, bombastic and outright hilarious as Walter, the right hand man to the infamous Dude as the venture through a kidnapping, a severed toe, a journey to replace a rug and lots and lots of bowling. Walter’s tirades, which lace the film like chocolate chips in a really good cookie, are now the stuff of legend. Get any Lebowski fan to a bowling alley on the Sabbath and see how many “I don’t roll on shabbas” jokes you get in 60 seconds. That alone is enough to cement Walter in pop culture glory. Oh, and don’t ever tell him you weren’t over the line.

    2. Marge Gunderson, Fargo, 1996

    Frances McDormand received an Academy Award for her delightful portrayal of a Minnesota police chief who tenaciously but pleasantly works her way through a web of kidnapping, bribery and ultimately murder. Gunderson is one of the most memorable characters in the Coen canon not only for the inescapable joy she seems to take in her job, but for the calm courage and subtle heroism she displays as the film grows more and more savage. McDormand’s performance makes it all the more surprising, and a few well-placed cries of Minnesota “Ya!” definitely don’t hurt.

    1. The Dude, The Big Lebowski, 1998

    Let’s face it. It was always going to be The Dude at the top of this list. How could it not be? No other character in the entire Coen lexicon has had a greater impact on pop culture, and perhaps no one in history has single-handedly rescued a cocktail from obscure with such ease. The Dude is quoteable, smooth, funny, oddly wise and altogether fun to watch, whether he’s sitting in the bathtub or cruising in his car rocking some Creedence. He’s also, strangely enough, a kind of folk hero for his generation, a man seeking to make his own way in a society that demands status. The Dude doesn’t need status. He just needs a bowling ball.

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