Quick Answer: Trying to eke out an underlying philosophy in the Coen brothers’ filmography is a little like trying to find a chain of needles in a needle stack. With the films’ twisting storylines and the brothers’ reluctance to dole out any explanation, the Coens’ catalogue evades clear interpretation. Nevertheless, it is possible to detect a recurring pattern. The foremost features of this pattern follow as such: 1) Selfish pursuits are a sure path to disaster. 2) Collateral damage is inevitable, and even the most righteous person can be a victim. 3) Selflessness is the best guard against misfortune. These three maxims—altogether moralistic, random, and inevitably leading to fiascos—form the backbone of nearly all Coen brothers’ films.
Trying to divine a single consistent philosophy underlying the Coen brothers’ filmography is a little like trying to find a chain of needles in a needle stack. Their stories are packed with meaning, but there’s never one definitive message. Rather, each Coen brothers’ film contains multiple, sometimes contradictory interpretations. For example, A Serious Man (2009), one of the most difficult to deconstruct of their titles, seems to simultaneously deny and affirm the existence of a divine, ordering power in the world. You can’t get much from asking the duo about it, either. Various commentators have pointed out just how tacit and unyielding they are on the matter; one remarked that they “appear puzzled by the existence of critics and bemused by any attempt at an intellectual reading of their work.” Nevertheless, with a critical eye and time for consideration, clear patterns arise. What follows is a pragmatic interpretation; through the fates of their characters, the Coen brothers lay out a pattern for a fulfilling life. The foremost features of this pattern follow as such: 1) Selfish pursuits are a sure path to disaster. 2) Collateral damage is inevitable, and even the most righteous person can be a victim. 3) Selflessness is the best guard against misfortune. These three maxims—altogether moralistic, random, and inevitably leading to fiascos—form the backbone of nearly all Coen brothers’ films. (Warning: many spoilers follow.)
Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man (2009)
Avarice and lust are consistent elements of drama, but they are seldom treated as directly as they are by the Coens. Every selfish act goes punished. In Blood Simple (1984), the Coen brothers’ first feature, three of four main characters are left dead and the last shell-shocked, because two selfishly cheat on a third, who selfishly attempts revenge by hiring a hitman, who selfishly attempts to double-cross his employer. Most often, the greed is directly focused on money. Fargo (1996), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), No Country for Old Men (2007), Burn After Reading (2008)—each of these films and more, even with their widely varied plots and tones, involve major characters dying over some sum of money from which no one ever benefits. In Hail, Caesar! (2016), wherein the kidnappers successfully receive their ransom, the money eventually vanishes into the ocean. Fargo’s hapless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) gets dragged off to jail—his wife and father-in-law left dead along the way—over his ill-fated scheme to pay his illicit debts. Even the poor, Job-like Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) encounters his worst challenges in A Serious Man after accepting a bribe in desperation. In cases wherein money is not the explicit motivator, selfishness remains the cause of misfortune. Johnny Caspar (John Polito) fights to expand his territory in Miller’s Crossing (1990) and dies for it; Hi and Ed (Nicolas Cage; Holly Hunter) kidnap a child to raise as their own in Raising Arizona (1987) and almost die for it; and musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) insults audiences and refuses to compromise on untenable principles in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and suffers rejection and poverty for it. The takeaway is simple: in the Coens’ universe, if you try to take something you don’t deserve, calamity is assured.
William H. Macy in Fargo (1996)
A few exceptional villains occur in the brothers’ films that might challenge this karmic morality; Barton Fink’s (1991) Charlie (John Goodman) and No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) are prime examples. These figures get away with murder seemingly without consequence. However, the exceptions are not as off the rule as they seem; in a weird way, neither Charlie nor Chigurh’s actions are selfish. They murder not for gain but for some sort of twisted personal code. Nevertheless, these two characters exemplify an important point: whereas selfish lives go punished, unselfish ones are not necessarily rewarded. You could do no more ill than witness Fargo’s Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) hiding a body, and wind up dead for it. In Burn After Reading, meek gym manager Ted’s (Richard Jenkins) only mistake is caring too much about Linda (Frances McDormand)—her own self-absorption the cause of numerous mishaps—and he gets the literal axe. Events like this contribute to an oft-identified theme of pointless and sadistic chaos in Coen films. In particular, A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, and No Country for Old Men showcase this theme in spades, but all of the brothers’ films contain some element of cruel randomness. In the Coens’ universe, you can avoid a lot of disaster by keeping your distance from those who would cause it, but you might just get unlucky when a man posing as a cop murders you with a cattle bolt pistol.
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (2007)
In the face of so much carnage and chaos, then, the question is unavoidable: is there space for hope? Because the Coens’ films focus largely on misfortune, it’s easy to miss the fortune hidden in them. Consider the characters who do meet a (comparatively) happy ending—Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), The Dude (Jeff Bridges)—none of these characters make it out of their films without some loss, but each takes it in stride because each exhibits a measure of humility and selflessness. The Soggy Bottom Boys of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) escape certain doom at the hands of the devil incarnate only when George Clooney’s blowhard Everett finally admits his nothingness and his desire to save his friends and see his family again. Even Hi and Ed, who kidnapped a child, meet a lenient fate as a result of their unselfish motive to care for the boy and of the way they repentantly relinquish him. Larry Gopnik presents a thorny exception; his continually worsening fate appears to result from his piety, as he is paralyzed by the desire to explain how all the chaos fits into God’s will. Perhaps A Serious Man is just a reminder that chaos can always win. Nevertheless, the general rule stands: in the Coens’ universe, the best way to prosper is to make the most of what you have and accept that you aren’t entitled to more.
Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch in Fargo (1996)
This analysis comes with a caveat: not only do individual Coen films permit multiple interpretations, but their filmography as a whole does as well. The Dissolve published an excellent breakdown of the Coens’ world morality that helped guide this article, but they take a much more cynical view, downplaying the hopeful outlook of this reviewer’s last point. Film studies professor Allen Redmon noted of the brothers’ films that “truth is not in the film. Viewers must bring truth if it is to be realized at all.” Regardless of your preferred reading, however, the evidence of this message is undeniable: life is cruel and punishing, but if you can be content with what you have, it doesn’t have to be.