The Coens didn't really click for me until MILLER'S CROSSING. I loved RAISING ARIZONA (and I hadn't seen BLOOD SIMPLE yet when MILLER'S CROSSING came out), but the dense material of MILLER'S really shook me the first time I saw it. I've seen MILLER'S CROSSING many times now and I always find something new and amazing about the movie even all these years later. I think that Tom Reagan is the richest, most complicated character in the Coen catalog, and that's saying a lot, and not to disparage any of the other characters that have come since, but Tom is a still, deep pool of indeterminate depth, and Gabriel Byrne played him perfectly. I can't imagine any other actor quite pulling that character off.
This week, I'd like to talk about my five favorite Coen movie moments. Some of them are violent, some are a simple conversation, and some of them sneak up on you and you don't realize their impact until later. I think that the Coens are two of the greatest American filmmakers, and while they are accused from time to time of having a slightly misanthropic view of humanity, I'd never say that about them, especially with one scene here in particular, but I'll get to that. Let's start!
5. BURN AFTER READING - George Meets Brad
I imagine that George Clooney and Brad Pitt laughed their asses off when they came across this scene in the script, considering their history and friendship together. BURN AFTER READING, to me, is a lesser movie in the Coen Brothers catalog, but it's still a great shaggy dog story and very funny. Chad is sort of a spiritual cousin to Pitt's Floyd in TRUE ROMANCE - in that, Floyd smokes weed through a honey bear bong, and in this, he religiously works out, doing little else. But both are... simple people, to put it nicely, and I think it's hilarious that the 3 seconds of screen time that Clooney and Pitt share end up... well. I wonder if Pitt will someday return the favor in a future movie. I can only hope that Clooney has the same expression on his face when it happens.
4. FARGO - "...and it's a beautiful day."
Frances McDormand gives a career-best performance in FARGO, and she's really not even onscreen all that much. But her every moment makes an impression, as one of the very few decent people in that snowblown hell. She doesn't overemote here; there are no tears of sorrow. Just a really nice person trying to make sense of the horrors and the ways of bad people. And with every line she sells Marge's frustration, fatigue, and her kind and good nature. "I just don't understand it." For people who claim that the Coens are misanthropes, I give them this scene, and I say that they absolutely believe in good people. It's just difficult to find them in a world full of evil and indifference, so when we do, we have to cherish and celebrate them. The Coens never make fun of Marge and her supposedly simple nature or morality. In the end, she has it just right. We need more Marges in the world.
3. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN - The Coin Toss
Watch the scene first, then come back. Done? Okay. First, I'd like to point out something, something I don't think I've seen mentioned many other places. You know Anton Chigurh totally fucked the guy on the gas, right? All he pays is a quarter. He even fucked him out of the sunflower seeds. I just think it's hilarious that the entire scene, the unstated threat of Chigurh, the deepening realization from the gas station attendant that this might be one of those signature life moments, even if he doesn't quite understand how it's happening, is all (or mostly) due to the fact that Anton Chigurh didn't feel like paying for gas that evening. Of course, that's not all that this scene is - it's a quite scary moment and it's fascinating how the Coens slowly build up the tension, second by second, until at the end you can hardly watch the scene play out. Javier Bardem never yells, just remains still, and this off-the-cuff meeting between a simple man and an outsider becomes all about fate, destiny, and random, senseless violence, even if the violence never quite happens. Masterful.
2. MILLER'S CROSSING - "Danny Boy," Albert Finney, And A Tommy Gun
Nothing overly thematically complicated about this scene, it's just a gloriously kick ass moment with Albert Finney as Leo, taking out some of Johnny Caspar's goons. It's wonderfully shot, edited, and orchestrated, a signature Coen Brothers moment, and Finney does it all with a smile and his stogie. What more can be said? Sam Raimi shot a lot of second unit stuff for the Coens, and although it's shot wonderfully by Barry Sonnenfeld, this has a very early Raimi feel about it. We even get to see Raimi later in the movie - although not for long - and this scene has a pacing and a punch to it that feels, for lack of a better word, Coenesque. It's probably the scene people remember most from MILLER'S CROSSINg, and for good reason. It's just sheer moviemaking joy.
1. RAISING ARIZONA - "Maybe it was Utah."
No embed for this one, although I looked, but never mind, you should have seen this great, great scene by now. Whenever I hear about how the Coens don't seem to much like people, I think about this scene, my very favorite scene in all of the Coen Brothers catalog - H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) imagining a better world for himself and for his wife Ed (Holly Hunter0 and perhaps someday, children. It's the most life-affirming, most optimistic ending the Coens have ever made, and it's beautiful sentiments still make me tear up a little when I see it. It's also my favorite bit of acting Nicolas Cage has ever done, even if most of it is just voice-over. I'm a sucker for sentiment, but when it feels as earned and as true as this scene does, there's no shame in the emotions that it brings. It's not even, really, about Hi and Ed's hope for children, just a better, happier place, and a shared future with the people they love. Maybe it was Utah. My favorite last line in a movie ever.
So that's it for this week. Next week we're going to a small village in feudal Japan, and an Akira Kurosawa classic. Thanks for reading.