A More Perfect Film: The Coen Brothers and the Comedy of Democracy
James Paul Old

Few people would dispute that Joel and Ethan Coen are among the greatest filmmakers working today. Some, however, might be less certain of what their films are actually all about. The brothers’ twenty-some films—from Blood Simple (1984) to their most recent The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)—provoke a variety of reactions. Critics frequently characterize their work as absurdist, existentialist, even nihilist, while viewers are often left disoriented by scenes that juxtapose the best and worst of humanity, veering from shocking evil to sentimental, even campy, decency. Acts of horrible violence are frequently tempered with slapstick comedy (the wood chipper scene in Fargo). Moments of beauty and tenderness reliably collapse into vulgarity and hypocrisy (the anti-climactic mermaid ballet of Hail, Caesar!). These sudden swings can be both wonderful and troubling, and even though these scenes often hint that there is a message behind all this madness, the Coens have been unwilling to clarify what that message might be. They rarely give interviews, and when they do, they refuse to engage with suggestions of any philosophy that might inspire their creative work.

Coen In their recent volume from Lexington Books, Sara MacDonald and Barry Craig attempt to solve this mystery. They argue in this slim but valuable study that the Coens’ films (at least some of them) articulate thoughtful critiques of contemporary political culture and demonstrate a profound moral vision. MacDonald and Craig argue that the Coens’ films tell stories about flawed and limited characters who are doing their best to seek the good. “Although sometimes dark in their humor or screwball in their antics, in their comedies the Coens reveal individuals who seek goodness even when discerning what constitutes the good is difficult and achieving it is in distinct opposition to an individual’s immediate self-interest” (xiv-xv). The book is divided into essays focusing on five films—Raising Arizona (1987), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and Hail, Caesar! (2016)—but the essays are unified by a few themes that the authors believe are present in all of these films. These themes include a demonstration of how the pursuit of narrow self-interest is corrosive to contemporary political culture; an exploration of how characters in the films move beyond selfishness to a recognition that their own happiness depends on the happiness of others; and a reaffirmation of the freedom that the American regime affords its citizens to find their own way toward the good.

MacDonald and Craig begin by exploring how the Coens’ films, and Raising Arizona in particular, challenge Americans’ understanding of themselves as a nation of heroic and self-reliant individuals. Raising Arizona’s protagonist Hi McDunnough is a life-long petty criminal who robs convenience stores, at least until his friends convince him to get more ambitious and start robbing banks. He is an overgrown child who punches his boss in the face in a fit of temper, and he is not alone in his selfishness. When Hi and his wife discover that they cannot have children, they decide to kidnap one of the newly-born “Arizona” quintuplets. The wealthy Arizona family’s patriarch, Nathan Arizona, is a classic caricature of a cold-hearted businessman who cheats his customers and abuses his staff. With a cast of appallingly selfish (but extremely funny) characters who refuse to accept the normal boundaries of decent society, Raising Arizona has a “Wild West” feel to it that is superficially appropriate to its western setting, but the characters’ childish states of mind demonstrate that their behavior has no place in a mature political order. Although an emphasis on self-preservation and the pursuit of profit were useful virtues in a young nation, they are less appropriate in a stable and prosperous political order.

This extreme selfishness also appears in the other films studied in this book. Each of the criminals in Fargo “seek to manipulate the external world and the people within it to suit his desires” (35), and in The Big Lebowski, the character Walter goes on a “quest for justice” motivated by “a narrowly defined self-interest, such as one might take from John Locke’s account of the state of nature” (50). The films suggest that this narrow form of individualism is the source of many of contemporary American culture’s worst aspects: its crass commercialism and materialism, its obsession with imperialistic power, and even the political apathy of its citizens.

The films, however, also depict Americans who transcend this selfish individualism. One way that Americans can achieve a broader understanding of their own self-interest is through cooperation with others in civic associations, such as Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski’s bowling league. “People of different genders, races, and cultures are all joined by a common pursuit: bowling a great game” (48–49). Membership in civic associations requires that we abide by a set of agreed upon rules and teaches us that we must treat others with at least a minimum level of respect. While individuals remain self-interested, they can come to a better understanding of the desires of others and the reasonable limits of their own selfishness.

This cultivation of “enlightened self-interest” is a necessary first step; however, citizens of a mature regime must do better than thinking of others as simply means to their own ends; they must come to genuinely care about the well-being of others as intimately connected to their own happiness. In the Coens’ films, this sort of growth usually happens through the love its characters experience for family members and friends. The Dude in The Big Lebowski at first is only out for his own good; he awakens from his drug-induced stupor only to protect himself from criminals who have dragged him into a poorly executed extortion scheme. But as his affection for Maude grows, he learns from her that his “task is not merely to take care of himself, but to seek justice for others even when there is no specific benefit that he might gain” (51). The three escaped convicts in O Brother start out working together only out of necessity, literally bound together by ankle chains. But as their friendship grows, so does their sense of justice. “A sense of loyalty and friendship toward Pete moves Everett out of the narrow self-absorption that he has displayed” (73). In Fargo, “[Marge’s] love for Norm and their unborn child, and her quest to create a just and secure community, indicate to her that there are principles beyond the finite world to which one should aspire” (36). Ultimately, our concern for the well-being of those we love points us toward a good that exists beyond ourselves and perhaps even beyond the limits of any political community.

The Coen brothers’ films depict individuals whose desires are disordered, and who are in the process of re-ordering these desires, but the Coens’s call for reform does not lead toward the kind of social control exhibited in Plato’s Republic. In fact, their films suggest that only when individuals are afforded the freedom to pursue their particular interests will they discover the good that unites them with their community. The authors write,

[I]n both Fargo and The Big Lebowski, it is the free pursuit of their particular interests, a happy marriage, a safe community for one’s child, and winning a bowling tournament, that lead these characters to seek the good of the broader communities of which they are a part. The political point that pervades the Coen brothers’ comedies is founded on an understanding that freedom is essential to the attainment of justice” (xv).

This freedom allows the Coens’ characters to develop virtues that are appropriate for citizens of a democratic order. The trio of escaped convicts in O Brother have democratic aspirations. “They yearn for property, a job, and a family life” (69). In common pursuit of these interests, they learn to trust and respect one another, and they even add a new member to their fellowship, an African-American guitarist named Tommy. They learn to “function as an equal society. All hierarchy is removed, racial distinction is negated, and particular virtue is not required to be a member of this group. They are friends and mutual goodwill is the foundation of their society” (75). These are not virtuous heroes in any classical sense, but as a mutually dependent group of friends who feel a strong sense of obligation to one another, they present a model of democratic political order.

In the book’s final chapter, MacDonald and Craig consider Hail, Caesar!, a recent film about the Hollywood movie studios of the 1950s, and find in it a reflection on the role that film can play in a democratic society. Film can be merely entertaining and aesthetically pleasing, but it also can serve as a corrective to modern cynicism by upholding examples of virtue and beauty. Even in their silliest, simplest characters, like Delmar from O Brother or Hobie from Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ films extol the virtues that democracy needs most. At its best, film can even suggest a reality beyond itself. While the Coens’ never presume to claim that film itself offers a glimpse of the divine (careful viewers of Hail, Caesar! noticed a line in the final credits reading, “This motion picture contains no visual depictions of the godhead.”), their films do show us how images on the big screen can point in that direction by celebrating virtue and beauty in a society that has become overly skeptical of such things. And For those of us who have enjoyed and been confused by the Coen brothers’ films for many years, MacDonald and Craig’s thoughtful study shows us that in our enjoyment and confusion we share something with their characters, who are sometimes selfish and sometimes gracious, but who are all on a search for meaning, even if it is hard to find.



James Paul Old is assistant professor of political science and international relations at Valparaiso University.

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