Hail, Caesar! (2016)

★★★★

Hail, Caesar! PosterDirectors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: February 5th, 2016 (US); March 4th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Mystery

Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Alden Ehrenreich

Hail, Caesar! might as well be a sequel to the Coen brothers’ early-90s writer’s block masterstroke, Barton Fink. The filmmaking duo are back on familiar turf, their gaze once again fixed upon their own industry, only this time it is an exploration of post-screenplay life. Set in 1951, a decade after Fink, we re-enter the mania of motion pictures during a time of internal and external struggle; as studios lose control within the self-contained confines of Hollywood, the real world is dealing with political crises and threats of nuclear decimation. Thankfully George Clooney, Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson are on hand to spread some joy.

Even those wary of their thematic craftsmanship or storytelling abilities must hold the Coen brothers’ world creation to the highest of standards. Here, the duo conceive Capitol Pictures (another Fink throwback) in all of its glory: bombastic sets tinged with old charm; backlots bearing their own gravitational pull that revolve around the movie star present — when interested parties hear Baird Whitlock (Clooney) will be starring in their feature, the reaction is an audible “oh my”. And office doors get in on the excess, wearing flashy, golden-chrome nameplates. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, fresh from stunning work in Sicario, shoots the grandiosity with skill and a sense of cosiness. It all just looks right.

The studio system is on its last reels and given the aforementioned extravagance, it is plain to see why. The social zeitgeist is one of populism, of westerns and biblical epics designed to quell the moviegoer’s fear of Communism and nuclear war if only for a few hours at a time. On a side note, Hail, Caesar! and Trumbo might make a worthwhile double-bill as here we are introduced, teasingly, to the Communist cause without ever delving far into its core. The Coens are interested in the production line, the behind-the-scenes craziness, of which there are many components — too many for such political allegiance to warrant thorough analysis.

Eddie Mannix is the common thread binding those components, superbly played by Josh Brolin (straddling the line between aloofness and competence). He is not a moral man, or so his cigarette-decrying priest would have him believe. He is a studio fixer, that is, a liaison between star and head financier. As the story progresses Mannix increasingly takes the form of a walking, talking manifestation of movies as life’s be all and end all, therefore false pretences must be upheld and personalities must be moulded to suit the needs of a fearful America. “The public loves you because they know how innocent you are,” Mannix informs Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran. She is pregnant and single, which is obviously a problem.

Less of a problem is the town’s new personality ready for shaping, that of proverbial cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich). He is an amiable up-and-comer who has plied his trade horse-riding and lasso-snapping, though the Capitol leaders wish to broaden his appeal. Of course, the kid has no experience in dramatic acting, especially not in delivering the mirthless chuckles and ruefulness ordered by his new, pompous director Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes in fine cameo form). Regardless, Hobie will be the next big thing because that’s what Mannix wants, and on the basis of his performance, Alden Ehrenreich will be too.

The movies we see in production adhere to a culture of emboldening, where lighting cues are so obviously artificial you cannot help but laugh when they announce themselves, and where acting is defined not by subtlety but by overemphasis. Clooney, playing the easily cajoled A-lister Baird Whitlock, is a master at such overemphasis: an early scene in which he is drugged by two plotting extras, the real life version of Pain and Panic from Hercules, ought to rouse significant amusement at the behest of his delayed water guzzling. It is a delay brought on by the actor’s strenuous effort to convey the hilarity of a joke, of course.

Whitlock spends the entirety of the film wearing the same gladiatorial costume and Clooney answers by sauntering like a Roman solider, sword a-swinging. We get those idiosyncratic moments, Coen watermarks, side quests not related to the central storyline but that are an absolute hoot to watch: two of the best in Hail, Caesar! involve a raucous religious rabble and an impromptu enunciation lesson. There is a sequence in the third act during which the piece knowingly gets ultra-meta: a late-night drive is montaged, scored by brass, Dutch angles invoked. It is like watching a movie within a movie about classic Hollywood movies.

Perhaps the need to accommodate as many kooky industry strands as possible means the film can’t be as richly textured as the Coens’ previous outings (although there are similarities with Barton Fink, deep thematic layering isn’t one). However, you are hoisted along with so much momentum by waves of nutty humour that it is almost impossible not to revel in it all. You find yourself gleefully anticipating the next big, showy scene, expecting it to topple the last in levels of arrant silliness — a high bar awaits tap dancing Tatum, though he sails through with flying colours.

Mannix spends time considering whether or not to ditch his Hollywood gig and assume an executive position at the aerospace organisation, Lockheed. A salesperson from the company occasionally appears, looking to coax Mannix into signing on the dotted line. “I’m sure the picture business is pretty damn interesting, but I’m sure it’s frivolous too,” the Lockheed man says. He’s right, in a wider world context, on both counts. Fortunately, thanks to movies like this and filmmakers such as the Coen brothers, that which is interesting far outweighs that which may be frivolous.

Hail Caesar - Channing Tatum

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Trumbo (2016)

★★★

Trumbo PosterDirector: Jay Roach

Release Date: November 25th, 2015 (US); February 5th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren

Trumbo is about two things: the trials and tribulations of a successful screenwriter, and the cultural acceptance of an uncommon political discourse. We spend time examining both, but never truly get into the meaty centre of either. Said screenwriter is Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), a creative caught up in a battle of black-and-white politics; it’s us versus them and US versus Russia. “The Blacklist was a time of evil,” he bemoans, and it probably was. Fighting against tonally light content, we don’t see that evil.

It is mid-20th century America and Hollywood has been torn in two, ambiguous grey areas nowhere to be seen (certainly not in this filmic incarnation). There are those with ties to Communism and ideals driven by wealth distribution, none more so than the aforementioned Trumbo. Then there are the others — studio heads, directors, actors — who bear defiant patriotism, unwavering in their hatred for the Communist agenda. The turbulent ripples become clear, crossing the personal-professional divide almost instantly: “[Trumbo is] among us. Sure as hell ain’t one of us,” says one director, and he ain’t referring to movie guilds.

Director Jay Roach employs newsreels that lambast Communism by throwing the words “radical” and “anti-democratic” around. Trumbo himself, though grouchier as the film wears on, is a beacon of idealism: the imaginative writer, accepting, and willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those on the other side of the fence. When he’s not doing that, Trumbo is storytelling — we see him awaken in a bathtub and pick up his pen as if he hadn’t stopped for a snooze break. He ponders thoughts before his typewriter, smoke clouding his headspace, evoking a sense of artistic megalomania. Cranston plays him well, naturally manoeuvring between cartoonish cheer and patchy introversion.

The movie moves with welcome momentum, but there is a lack of bite in each narrative stroke. That the rabble of screenwriters charged with Communist associations are, at worst, fairly wealthy white males ought to be more of an issue given the film’s discriminatory context, but that is only brushed over during a brief conversation between Trumbo and fellow writer Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) — the civil rights movement becomes a meagre agent of friction between father and daughter, forgotten after a heart-to-heart. In fairness, unfair haranguing by Supreme Court magistrates does show us how little progress we have made in terms of political jousting and partisan stubbornness.

You would think the criminalisation of the Hollywood Ten (as the writers are collectively known) would have a creative impact on the film industry, but we don’t really see any immediate consequences. Irrespective of politics, incarceration means a loss of talent and that loss is skimmed over even after Trumbo and co. are released from prison and subsequently blacklisted. The workaround is fairly obvious: sell one’s work under somebody else’s name. Trumbo does just that, penning and then passing on the critically acclaimed Roman Holiday (1953) to his untainted screenwriter pal Ian McLellan Hunter (a typically effective Alan Tudyk).

It’s when he decides to work with B movie studio exec Frank King (John Goodman) as a script curator that we see some sort of occupational impact — these films are shoddy, far from Trumbo’s intellectual norm. As King puts it, “Quality minimum; quantity maximum”. Goodman’s arrival ushers in a Coen touch, a bout of heightened satire and craziness, and probably the film’s best moments too (a baseball-bat-wielding Goodman is a sight to behold). This stuff is enjoyable, though you do get the sense the filmmakers are too caught up in moulding an accessible film to carve out something significant.

What this means for the characters, and Trumbo especially, is a lack of piercing emotional rigour during moments of plight. Forced to strip off all of his clothes, Trumbo’s entry into jail is clearly demeaning and disheartening, however it should be tinged with so much more emotional verve. But up until that point there is no gravitas urging you to sympathetically invest in the scribe. Trumbo’s only emotional ties are those the film does not really have to earn: to his family, including daughter (Elle Fanning) and wife Cleo. Fanning shows spark and in spite of her fairly thankless role — wife and mother — Diane Lane manages to imbue Cleo with a dose of likeability.

Helen Mirren channels her inner Rita Skeeter as Hedda Hopper, the media’s harshest Communist critic. “Bad box office? No, bad politics,” she says, more concerned with political allegiance than money which, given her job relies on a thriving Hollywood, is quite something. John Wayne is arguably her biggest ally from within the industry, played here with brutish aplomb by David James Elliot. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, other big anti-Communist thinkers such as Joseph McCarthy are tiptoed around, Roach opting instead to focus on Hollywood figures.

On the aesthetic face, lots of high-waisted trousers and charcoal fedoras help to amplify the time period. Pathé-esque newscasts look real — some are, such as one depicting a John F. Kennedy film critique (two thumbs up) — while Roach’s use of newspaper prints to relay the national agenda is a nifty touch. These visual styles culminate in a retro flavour that generates more authenticity; it’s no Carol, but it’s good. Vowels are even offloaded with deeper verve. Cranston’s Trumbo sounds like someone who once resided in one of those old, grainy video recordings from many decades past.

Screenwriter John McNamara has a lot to juggle content-wise so perhaps the hit-and-miss nature of Trumbo shouldn’t come as much of a surprise — Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) arrive without warning as the film reaches its scattergraph finale, name-checking Kubrick and negotiating screen credits. The film is essentially a trivial overview of a much more interesting period in US and Hollywood history than is given credit. But Trumbo is wholly watchable and Cranston commendably holds the screen, amounting to a piece worth its papery weight in entertainment.

Trumbo - Cranston & Mirren

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Bleecker Street

Bridge of Spies (2015)

★★★★★

Bridge of Spies PosterDirector: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: October 16th, 2015 (US); November 27th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance

Silence dominates the opening moments of Bridge of Spies. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is the target, tailed by a swarm of men wearing fedoras. The possible KGB operative remains stony-faced — his dirty nails suggesting foul play — as he retrieves a silver coin which, after much tinkering and magnifying, opens to reveal a tiny folded message. It’s the late-1950s and the Cold War is at its peak. The US is feeling the after-effects of the Rosenbergs. McCarthyism is rife. Trials and conspiracies dominate the landscape. Director Steven Spielberg even insists upon showing us the construction of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing chaos in Germany. It’s that kind of movie.

Back in the US, a country scarred mentally rather than physically by rising tensions, we meet lawyer James Donovan. Donovan is clearly a smart man, and we don’t simply know this because he’s being played by Tom Hanks; we also see him outwit a fellow professional during a metaphor-heavy conversation about bowling pins and tornadoes. He has a way with words, and reverberates a diplomacy that wholly fits his occupation. For this reason Donovan ends up defending Abel in court, a job his superior suggests will be straightforward given guilt is unequivocal. Simply put, “It’s a patriotic duty”. “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose”, quips Donovan. It’s also that kind of movie.

See, Donovan is a beacon of ethical clarity in a murky world, and that’s why we endorse him with so much fondness. He relentlessly holds injustice to account in the name of his client despite the subsequent threat faced by himself and his family. It is right to defend a potentially wrong man, but is it feasible to do so under such conditions? Perhaps not, yet the upstanding advocate defends anyway. On the topic of family, Spielberg’s admiration and respect for children once again shines through during a talk between Donovan and his son — the latter, though young, hurdles naivety by understanding war is a possibility, and has intelligently worked out the potential radius of an atom bomb in preparation.

Bridge of Spies isn’t a boots-on-the-ground war film though. Rather, it is one that pits apparently important men around tables as they discuss the probability of battle without ever having to actively engage themselves. If anything, events on screen are propelled by a “war of information,” and we get lots of just that via high-stakes-cum-low-key rounds of dialogue. Donovan is at the centre of it all and often finds himself in no man’s land, devoid of support. He faces a grouchy judge in his quest for fairness, and a grouchy US too: locals stare at him with contempt when they realise he is the one defending the Soviet and Donovan unjustly becomes a rash on the domestic landscape.

That’s not how we see it though. Hanks offers more than just A-list reliability; he negotiates political wrinkles and unfair judgement with everyman aplomb. When two Americans face prosecution and trade deals are optioned, Hanks irons out any narrative complications with charm and a coherent tongue. There is nobody better at playing this type of role. On the opposing side, Mark Rylance affords Abel true mystery. The uncouth detachment that the infiltrator purveys could just be an act — he is a foreign agent, after all. But there is a constant kindness to Abel’s words, embodied by his “standing man” speech that reveals itself to be a masterclass in subtlety, beautifully delivered by Rylance.

A rustic production design blankets the movie in a 50s sheen. People use typewriters, wear grey trench coats, and smoke cigars. Yet there is an unavoidable modern truth at the fore too. “This Russian spy came here to threaten our way of life,” barks one particularly cheesed off American lawman, a statement that could easily be reshaped and applied to the climate of cultural blame within which we currently reside. Matt Charman and the Coen brothers’ screenwriting examines what borders mean in conjunction with matters of law (and, by proxy, matters of humanity). This forms another sturdy basis from which we can empathise with the characters on screen (Donovan, for instance, believes Abel has the right to a proper trial even though he isn’t an American citizen).

Spielberg harks back to Road to Perdition with his use of heavy rainfall, dripping umbrellas, and general murkiness. But also, oddly, bouts of light humour and fleeting courtroom trips recall Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men. The Coen brothers’ screenplay inflections are those moments of dry comedy, generously spread throughout to loosen the dramatic belt while still giving room to the film’s weighty subject matter. Upon arrival in Germany for tetchy negotiations, Donovan takes up residence in a dingy apartment as his partners, conveniently unable to assist on the ground, are cosied up in the local Hilton hotel.

The gags are a treat, but the imminent possibility of peril seldom retreats. In fact, it grows stronger when we reach East Berlin; a shot from inside a train passing over the Berlin Wall highlights the difference between the fairly controlled west and the decimated east, forming a potential ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture for Donovan should he slip up and fuel the war bid. It is not as tense as, say, Sicario, but the threat of war does teeter on a knife edge and you can just about see each sway amongst the chilly mist.

Thomas Newman contributes a beautiful score that inspires and haunts as it reflects the changing landscapes: homely US, arctic Germany. In typical Spielbergian fashion, Newman’s score also tugs at our heartstrings, either through its grandiose scope (Saving Private Ryan occasionally springs to mind) or, as is the case towards the film’s conclusion, a simple piano melody. It almost goes without saying in 2015 but Spielberg himself is on fine form as he juggles a whole host of characters — Amy Ryan, Jesse Plemons, Sebastian Koch, and many more ably support — and a potentially tricky script with sure-fire handiness.

It’s not excessively complex filmmaking, nor is it in any way underfed. There is a clear start point, a clear end point (a lovely one at that), and an admirable confidence in the material. Bridge of Spies is a wonderful, eloquent piece of cinema, delivered by a directorial giant unafraid to promote the practice of principles, and actors who clearly cherish the process. It’s the kind of film that makes going to the pictures worthwhile. It’s that kind of movie.

Bridge of Spies - Tom Hanks

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 20th Century Fox

Clooney and the Coens, Together Again?

O Brother Where Art Thou - Clooney 2

According to Deadline, George Clooney is set to reteam with the Coen brothers on Suburbicon, a noir-drama penned by the sibling duo. It appears Clooney will be taking up the directorial reigns, the silver-haired silver screen star having already successfully overseen the making of other outings such as his beautifully crafted 2005 piece, Good Night, and Good Luck.

The screenplay has been languishing in the bowels of Hollywood, or Coen-wood, for at least a decade — Empire reported on Clooney’s potential involvement as far back as 10 years ago — but now the stars seem to have finally aligned for the trio. Clooney and the Coens have been working together since 2000 when the actor starred in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, an uproarious Depression Era take on Homer’s Odyssey. Only the Coen brothers could conceive a Depression Era take on Homer’s Odyssey. Their collaborative portfolio portfolio also includes Intolerably Cruelty (2003) and Burn After Reading (2008).

Clooney & Coens

Despite the lengthy waiting period, details remain fairly sketchy regarding Suburbicon’s plot, though I suspect it’ll have something to do with crazed unicorns wreaking havoc on a quiet suburban locale. Whatever the case may be, should Deadline’s report come to fruition Clooney will certainly be hoping for a more positive critical outcome than that fostered by his last directorial product, The Monuments Men.

Joel and Ethan will direct Clooney again in their latest upcoming venture Hail, Caesar! which is set for release early next year and could figure prominently throughout awards season. The film harkens back to 1950s Hollywood and will see Clooney star as big name actor Baird Whitlock who is kidnapped mid-production. Fixer Josh Brolin is the man called in to solve the should-be entertaining mystery. Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, and Frances McDormand are among a host of other actors involved.

If the trailer is anything to go by Hail, Caesar! will be another gloriously shot brash comedy with sardonic skin. In other words, one you ought not to miss. Channing Tatum is playing an actor playing a sailor — look at that grin for goodness’ sake!

Hail Caesar - Channing Tatum

Images credit: Indiewire, Vanity Fair, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion PicturesUniversal Studios

Blue Ruin (2014)

★★★★★

Blue Ruin PosterDirector: Jeremy Saulnier

Release Date: April 25th, 2014 (US limited); May 2nd, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Thriller

Starring: Macon Blair

Sitting shielded by penetrable furniture, rifle in hand, Dwight is the embodiment of unrelenting fear and all-consuming retribution. It’s a scene we’ve already watched play out, no more than an hour ago, yet the horrors of Blue Ruin remain just as prominent. Jeremy Saulnier presents a film as blunt as they come in terms of both violence and message; people do bad things, and other people do even worse things as a result. This isn’t humanity’s finest hour, but it’s a damn good one for the visually-affluent filmmaker. If it wasn’t for an outstanding lead turn courtesy of Macon Blair, Blue Ruin would be an impermeable one-man show — Saulnier is writer, cinematographer and director. The pair make quite a duo though, their film a juxtaposition of wonderfully rustic imagery and violently fraught undercurrents. Still clutching his weapon Dwight notices the approaching car headlights, and we realise vehicular beams have never felt so brooding.

Living on the beach, Dwight (Macon Blair) has become a part of the slum-like scenery: bearded, scruffy and wearing only ripped clothing. His 1996 Pontiac — one of Dwight’s only possessions — represents his worn out, rusty self. We don’t know much about him, that is until information gets out regarding the release of Wade Cleland, the accused killer of Dwight’s parents. Like a seldom used tap recently turned on, Dwight’s meandering outlook spurts forth previously concentrated resentment and alters into one driven by the waters of revenge. Consequences are inconsequential until the deed is done, and then they becoming everything.

If the Coen brothers were to create a horror film, you get the feeling that it wouldn’t veer too far from the look and feel of Blue Ruin. Saulnier’s outing never gloats, the subject matter doesn’t allow it, but as one spectacularly furnished competent part after another is relayed on screen you’d be remiss to forgive any slight indication of back-patting. Each element is crafted and honed to appease the next. Visually, the film is visceral and uncompromising in savage outbursts, whilst retaining an organic authenticity during moments of recalculation. The violence is nasty and vulgar, but wholly fitting within the pessimistic context communicated. Otherwise, empty landscapes yield no place for refuge.

Depending on whether Dwight is loading a gun or being enveloped by solitude, the audio either reinforces purpose with metallic verve or reverberates a husky, crackling air. Regardless, the film consistently sounds magnificent. On occasion, we hear a drone of similar ilk to the noise emitted from a lightsaber, only it’s not lively beaming energy, it is rampant tension — the sound of Dwight’s desperation. As Blue Ruin patiently simmers with unease, Dwight hurries, trying to flee from the horrors affronting him but running directly into them instead. Perhaps he does so with a semblance of perverse acceptance compelled by retribution. It’s this ambience of apprehension that keeps us completely fixated to events for ninety minutes, fingernails bearing the brunt.

Technical prowess should come as no surprise, Saulnier is a cinematography graduate after all and his execution here is faultless. However, this is not a case of several parts being greater than the whole. Rather, the excellent individual nuances on display converge together, unfurling a film that should be admired for the having the courage of its convictions. It is almost as if the filmmaker’s precision is intended to mirror Dwight’s own meticulous mindset, one that evolves as he himself develops into an unconventional central character. Forget your anti-heroes, there aren’t any to be found here. Dwight most certainly was a normal customer in the past, but now he bears a murderous foreboding that relentlessly lingers over him: “I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not… you’re weak,” says a family member upon realising the consequences of Dwight’s ruthless actions. Blue Ruin doesn’t offer anybody to cheer for. There is no right, only wrong, yet you still find yourself caught between a rock and a hard place, rooting for Dwight. Not for him to kill but for him to escape. Moments of light humorous relief are prescribed, though are suitably drowned out by a stern tone.

Subsequently, we’re presented with a fresh take on the revenge thriller. Immorality is convoluted (“It had to be legal”), so much so that you’ll come away with an addictive need to recollect and rethink proceedings. The aforementioned achievements of Saulnier are telling, but Macon Blair’s central turn as Dwight is just as imperative to the film’s success. He articulates wholesome credibility as a man whose demons are within arm’s reach; his performance is full of panic and chaotic determination. During a conversation, the vengeance-seeker admits he is not “used to talking this much” and it is true that Blair spends a significant amount of time acting with observable emotion. As the film progresses, each breath gets hoarser and more sweat permeates. Blair’s raw roadside vomiting exemplifies the incomprehensible situation in which his character finds himself. Yet in spite of this, a genuine anguish escapes from Blair’s eyes, forcing us to empathise with Dwight.

At one point Dwight pays for much-needed items with blood-stained money, unable to explain himself (“I, uh… I…”), the scene illustrating his confused and compromised state of mind. The film itself is far from confused though, purposeful in revealing humanity’s evil side and assured by a dedicated lead performance. Even with only four hours sleep and a hand-cramping geography exam in the bank, Blue Ruin’s noteworthy candidness had me fully attentive. If this doesn’t wake you up, nothing will.

Blue Ruin - Blair

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Fargo (1996)

★★★★★

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: April 5th, 1996 (US); May 31st, 1996 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy

A jack of all trades, and perhaps one of the best. Shuttled forth by a bleakly comedic narrative, Fargo occasionally amps up the awkward, tie-loosening tension before ploughing right and left into a caveat of blunt criminality. There’s an inherently dramatic element too, the underbelly of bumbling luck and the ultimate tale of karma. The Coen brothers boast a unique style; precise in their crafting and often ironic in their delivery, a deliriously absorbing mantra that stretches far and wide here. Characters gargle seemingly innocuous lines of dialogue, yet a nonchalant poise often demands bouts of laughter. And therein lies the film’s most admirable quality: it makes you guffaw through moments of sadism, but never denounces you for doing so. The sibling duo at the helm aren’t overly serious in their direction (only when required), yet still manage to divulge a genuine sense of authentic story-telling. In Fargo, every scene holds a certain weight and although engagement with the particulars is at the viewer’s discretion, there’s never a sense of an overbearing burden. Yaaaa.

In Fargo, North Dakota, police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) — a woman as cheerful as she is pregnant — is called to a road-side accident harbouring two casualties. Only it’s not an accident, and is instead part of a series of unfortunate events set alight by car salesman Gerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) in an attempt to recoup much needed cash for his family. A master plan that would garner appreciation from the likes of John Kramer, Gerry hires a pair of quintessential henchmen to kidnap his wife and subsequently demand an $80,000 ransom, the spoils of which would be shared between the trio of plotters. Only Gerry is deviously untangling his own personal puppeteering strings, ready to juggle them against his father-in-law in an attempt to gain one million dollars from the extravaganza. In Gerry’s anxiety-plastered eyes, family comes first… and last.

There’s an ever-present aura that wilfully jaunts around any Coen film. It’s easy to spot, deliberate in implementation but astutely subtle as to never degrade proceedings. Drawing upon the experience of 16 previous films, seeing the words “Joel and Ethan Coen” sprawl across the screen nowadays prompts an intrinsic knowledge that meticulous sardonicism will soon be lingering. Released when their three-decade-old filmmaking odyssey was eighteen years younger, Fargo might just be the sibling duo’s most complete diamond of irony. Some films might be more wholesome in their flippant ideology, for example O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its caper-esque comedic quality, whereas others will undoubtedly offer greater absorbency through numerous interpretations and delightful tones, such as Inside Llewyn Davis. You’d be hard-pressed to come up with another Coen creation as genre-splicing as Fargo though, for this conglomeration of classification is what cinema is all about.

In a Minnesotan setting bitten by frost and populated with oddities constantly attempting to cover their innocuous tracks (“I don’t vouch for him”) the Coen brothers present and develop a number of wholly recognisable characters. Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud are the absolute epitome of a caricature criminal partnership: the snivelling manipulator, out of his depth but armed with a motor mouth, and the dumb brute, purposeful only in violent outbursts or foul language. Gerry Lundegaard is the struggling businessman who ventures further into the ocean of uncertainty than he should, and is all the more blundering for it. His father-in-law Wade Gustafson has more money than patience, and decreases in accessibility when he knows his cash is at risk (“A lotta damn money” is one of the funniest gags). These characters are familiar, but they are also affectionately handled and escorted through a variety of tonal preoccupations, from comedy to crime to drama, constantly forging energy and slap-stick-like commotion. Our child-bearing detective Marge is the only figure who detours from the norm; noticeably pregnant, deliriously good-humoured and actively chasing murderers are three traits that do not often mesh together. This hodgepodge collection of characters coupled alongside a narrative that explodes with vibrancy, will refrain from giving you enough time to reflect on what just happened before it makes you ponder what’s going to happen next.

Yet, in spite of a growing sense of madness, the Coens always appear fully in control. Although the narrative is idiosyncratic — one minute a Steve Buscemi facial expression will have your jaw aching and the next a gunshot will leave you in shock — there is a point, a certain method, to all on-screen antics. The craziness of each character reflects the madness of his or her actions, prompting us to consider the length of a person’s sanity during tough times, whilst simultaneously sending out a nod towards the wondrous scope of cinema. Masterfully, the Coens develop a blunt and sadistic sense of realism amongst the hilarities. Fargo details karma as a rapid mule with more bite than the cold landscape from which it festers. In this tale of people playing people playing people, only the people face the consequences.

Shepherded by Roger Deakins’ icy cinematography, the arctic setting becomes a player of its own as it seeps into every other aspect of the film. Most characters endure cold minds. Lasting shots of mundaneness appear frozen to the screen. There’s a stiff lack of motivation, embodied emphatically by Marge’s police partner who can only conjure up phrases such as, “Watch your step Margie,” and, “You okay Margie?” as the heavily pregnant woman inspects dead bodies. Even the comedy is frosty — plotting and kidnapping is carried out in an atmosphere far more jovial than intense. Though, the funny buck stops at murder, an action presented more chillingly and viscerally than any other.

Regular Coen contributors Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi are once again on hand and, alongside William H. Macy, deliver terrific performances. Humour is the common denominator for the trio, though the source varies. For McDormand, an incessant politeness in the face of violence and misnomer creates a peculiar dynamic. McDormand’s poise throughout sees Marge one step ahead of the game, even when she’s a day or two behind the others. Entirely the opposite, then, is Macy as the bumbling goof businessman Gerry. Gerry’s idiocy is built from a spectrum of nervous facial expressions and worried posturing; an unassured plight that sees no positive solution. He’s anxious to a T, but so dud-like that you sort of expect his ridiculous plan to come off in a spectacularly inadvertent fashion. The third of three great performances derives from the acting chops of Steve Buscemi, whose raging demeanour funds a big-mouthed little guy not far removed from Tommy DeVito. He relentlessly contradicts himself and thus withholds attracting seriousness, but it’s obvious that Buscemi is having a blast with the role and fun is infectious. It also helps that he gets many of the funniest quips.

The Coen brothers leave nothing to chance and inject Fargo with fastidious application — it’s no surprise that a wintry white landscape pronounces vivid red blood. The film will keep you guessing, is littered with humour and completely embraces the medium from which it thrives. In doing so, it even has the wherewithal to reflect on the outrageousness of its characters’ wrong-doings.

In the often correct words of Roger Ebert, “Films like Fargo are why I love the movies”.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

★★★★

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: October 26, 2001 (UK); November 2nd, 2001 (US limited)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson

There’s something incessantly comforting about The Man Who Wasn’t There. Maybe it’s the traditional and dearly received monochrome visual style. Or a number of idiosyncratic, often comical characters. Perhaps it’s even that distinct narrative structure that the Coen brothers regularly implement into their meticulously crafted films. In reality, the combination of each of these engaging aspects and more provides this aura of odd satisfaction. Coen aficionados will absolutely enjoy the classically cinematic piece, a shrewd and well-paced drama that certainly dabbles in less unknown ground than it does commonality, but is all the better for it.

Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is exceptionally unexceptional. In his own words, he’s just the barber, a profession he happened to “stumble into”. Nothing glamorous, everything mundane. He doesn’t talk much either, and when he does his words often couple together in coherent wonderment about the growth of hair. Surprisingly then (or unsurprisingly) Ed’s decision to invest in a new dry-cleaning venture is the catalyst for an incredible domino effect of rotten luck, and even more terrible repercussion. Yet he is still unmoved. Not carefree as that’d be too mindfully jaunty and far from stubborn as that would indicate innate emotion. No, as his world unfolds around him Ed Crane remains an unremarkable man, in remarkable circumstances.

The down-on-your-luck bedraggled main protagonist is a Coen stalwart, and that’s entirely the case here. Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane — a character named after a construction machine is banal prophecy at its finest — typifies this presence of lingering non-attraction. A non-attraction only really sold at face value though, because as the film progresses and the dominoes continue fall, Crane’s disassociation with it all is oddly humorous. Just like in A Serious Man, and even more so in their newest offering Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen’s strategically present an ailing, undesirable human who still makes you laugh. Not in a guffawing manner, but rather through chuckles supported by a bleak undertone. The characters around Ed only serve as further coals to the comedic fire. Jon Polito sweats flippantly in a hilarious turn as Ed’s potential dry cleaning business partner. Brother-in-law Frank, played by Michael Badalucco, is a motor mouth who can’t even prevent his tongue from wavering during a murder trial.

On the other side of the Coen coin, there’s an ostentatiously serious murder cover-up story playing out. In many other settings the sincerity of these dramatic proceedings would be tragic, but as the widow of the victim details how she believes aliens and the government to be responsible for her late husband’s demise (a theory book-ended by ironically eerie music) you cannot help but awkwardly laugh out of nonsensical fear. Even Ed’s total removal from everyday society is a depressing tale. As he reflectively narratives events whilst they unfold, Ed constantly refers to himself in loner terms, as if a complete disconnect prevents him from being fully incorporated into the world. Only his shadow follows him, unnerved. Perhaps this is why he decides to hatch an elaborate plan to become part of a fairly feeble business venture — solely to be involved. “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. Nobody saw me. I was the barber,” are sobering reflections from an unfortuitous gentleman, but in the peculiarly poised Cold War landscape — where everybody suspects something but nobody suspects Ed — it’s sort of inexplicably funny. This curious dichotomy, where a load of off-beat happenings congregate in an intelligently crafted manner, paves way for a hilariously strange output, one which screams proudly Coen.

James Gandolfini is purposeful, arrogant and boisterous as Big Dave, manager of a local department store where Ed’s wife works. Gandolfini purveys a bumbling kind, one without any real moral compass and whose arrogance often gets the better of him. It’s an excellent performance portraying a character who accentuates Ed’s triviality; as Big Dave recalls his (true or untrue) tales of fighting in World War II, we are informed Ed was turned away by army officials for having flat feet. Gandolfini’s “what kind of man are you?” packs a familiar punch too. Frances McDormand is Ed’s aforementioned wife Doris, someone who might come across as particularly uninspiring if not in the presence of Ed. A fresh-faced Scarlett Johansson even makes an appearance as a young piano player, and the only person who generates any significant (perhaps repentant) energy out of Ed.

Camera master Roger Deakins once again breathes an aesthetically majestic life into a film. His shots are often reined in by simplicity, but always evoke a sense of fond visual appreciation. The black and white depiction even embodies a character of its own, complementing Ed’s nonchalant attitude in one unassuming sense but then contrasting his superior normality in another — the style certainly isn’t normal these days.

The Coen brothers boast a unique filmmaking mantra, one that is beloved by many and that often succeeds. In the case of The Man Who Wasn’t There it’s another success story, as the various components — idiosyncratic dialogues, an unlucky non-hero, splendidly manipulated visuals, and magnificently crafted sets — all come together in a weirdly comical and soothing experience.