Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Looking At Joel & Ethan Coen’s Solo Directed Films After 40 Years Of Partnership

There are two kinds of filmmakers: the ones who are able to tweak their style to fit any genre and the ones who dismantle genre conventions to fit their style. Joel and Ethan Coen are examples of the latter. In a technical sense, the siblings have dabbled in comedy, neo-noir, westerns, and dramas, but in a more real sense, they make Coen Bros. joints. The comedy in “Fargo” (1996) is punctuated by moments of stomach-churning violence, while the griminess of “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001) gets undercut by moments of awkward levity. You never know what the next move will be in a Coen brothers film, which is why they’ve held our attention for four decades (Literally: “Blood Simple,” their feature directorial debut, turns 40 this October).

However, the most surprising move Joel and Ethan Coen made was ending their partnership. The brothers decided to go their separate ways in 2021, resulting in solo directorial debuts. Joel was the first to strike with “The Tragedy of Macbeth” (2021), and Ethan has now followed with the release of “Drive-Away Dolls” (2024), which is currently in theaters (Ethan also helmed the 70-minute documentary “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind” which has yet to be released in the U.S.). Joel and Ethan have already confirmed that they are working on a new project together, which means the “solo Coen” years are over. However, this brief period of time provided insight into what each of them brings to the table as collaborators.

Joel and Ethan Coen have always been hesitant to analyze their process. The only point they’ve been adamant about is that they “share” all responsibilities: writing, producing, directing. They even edit together under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. Duos are nothing new in Hollywood, but they typically come with an understanding of which person handles what and who defers to the other in case of a disagreement. Paul Newman had been hesitant to work with directing duos because of this perceived power struggle, so when he signed up for Joel and Ethan’s “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994), he was impressed to find they had “equal creative authority.” A two-headed monster with a twisted sense of humor, as shown by what happens to Newman’s character in the film’s climax.

The perception of Joel and Ethan Coen as a two-headed monster is what has made their solo releases so fascinating. One might’ve assumed they would make films with similar themes and/or tones, but they did the opposite. By releasing “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and “Drive-Away Dolls” in succession, Joel and Ethan have split their own stylistic atom and re-contextualized everything that came before.Let’s first take a look at “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” The film is as urgent as it is sobering, with Denzel Washington playing the titular character and Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife) playing the sinister Lady Macbeth. The source material is right in the Coen wheelhouse, as evidenced by the all-star roster of men trapped by their own failings in films like “No Country for Old Men” (2007), “A Serious Man” (2009), and “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013). The thing that sets “The Tragedy of Macbeth” apart, however, is the presentation.

Joel Coen trades in the single-source lighting of cinematographer Roger Deakins for the painterly precision of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and the results are breathtaking. Joel took inspiration from Orson Welles’ minimalist adaptation of “Macbeth” (1948), but he takes it a step further by emphasizing negative space and the artificiality of the film’s locations. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” plays out like a medieval fever dream, and as such, the director showcases a patience and grace that has only surfaced in the darkest moments of the Coen brothers canon.

It’s also worth noting that “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is about as funny as its title suggests. There is not a whiff of satire in the foggy, liminal space that the film presents, nor is there a sense of hope by the story’s end. If the Coen brothers spectrum has the forest execution from “Miller’s Crossing” (1990) on one end and the “Burn After Reading” (2008) scene in which Brad Pitt dances on the other, then Joel is definitely closer to the former. He carried out his solo directorial debut with the utmost sincerity and ambition.

Then there’s “Drive-Away Dolls.” It’s been theorized that younger siblings often pick interests that are diametrically opposite to those of their older siblings, and if true, Ethan Coen is proof. The director’s solo debut is a crime-comedy in which two women (Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan) go on a road trip to Tallahassee, Florida, unaware they have unwanted materials in the truck, as they dodge a group of inept criminals. Nothing grandiose or thematically weighty, just a lark that’s tonally indebted to Coen brothers favorites like “Raising Arizona” (1987), “The Big Lebowski” (1998), and “Hail, Caesar!” (2016).Drive Away DollsEthan discussed the desire to work outside of the Coen brothers banner during a 2022 interview with the Associated Press. He explained that decades of collaboration with Joel resulted in the moviemaking process feeling more like a job than a joy, so both men decided to take some time apart and focus on different ventures. “Drive-Away Dolls” is a story that Ethan and co-writer Tricia Cooke (his wife) have been kicking around for two decades, and it stemmed from Ethan’s desire to emulate the exploitation romance flicks he watched as a teenager.

The dialogue is snappy, the characters are irrationally confident despite their obvious shortcomings (Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal keep the Coen tradition of leading men playing absolute morons alive), and violent outbursts break up the hijinx. If “Drive-Away Dolls” were made by anyone other than a Coen, it would repeatedly be described as “Coen-esque” by critics. As it stands, it falls on the Brad Pitt dancing side of the spectrum I previously outlined.

So what does this all mean? Is Joel the more talented sibling because he experimented and avoided traditional Coen-esque beats? Is Ethan the comedic mastermind who’s helped to codify the duo’s most beloved and recognizable traits? The answer lies somewhere in between. The biggest takeaway from watching the Coen brothers create as individuals is that they do, in fact, have distinct sensibilities. Still, the combination of these sensibilities gives their joint efforts their special sauce.

Joel and Ethan are reportedly working on a horror film next, and one can only imagine what their combined efforts will yield in such a stylized genre. If we’ve come to expect anything from these two, though, it’s the unexpected.

What do you think of “Drive-Away Dolls” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth?” Are you excited to see the Coen Bros. re-team again? Have you seen “Drive-Away Dolls” yet? If so, what did you think of it? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account.

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Danilo Castro
Danilo Castro
Music lover. Writer for Screen Rant, Noir Foundation, Classic Movie Hub & Little White Lies.

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