The Exile on Stuffy Critics on The Coen Brothers

Eileen Jones:

The critics who've now decided to approve of the Coens have to find a way to justify the violence they so deplore. Here's Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times giving it a try: "But as the story unfolds with the awful inevitability of a modern myth, it’s clear that the Coen brothers and [novelist Cormac] McCarthy are not interested in violence for its own sake but for what it says about the world we happen to live in."

Yeah, right. The Coens aren't interested in violence for its own sake like the Japanese makers of samurai films aren't interested in violence for its own sake. There’s no beauty or artistry or pleasure or kick or significance in representations of violence qua violence. Heavens no, Priscilla.


Anyway, the story here is not that the Coens are great—we know—it’s the fact that a mere two-decades-plus into their feature filmmaking careers, the Coens have found broad acceptance with American critics. Now they tell us, based on seeing No Country for Old Men, that the Coens typically "combine virtuosic dexterity with mischievous high spirits, as if they were playing Franz Liszt’s most treacherous compositions on dueling banjos" (A.O. Scott, New York Times). All right, then! Even the Village Voice, that malignant foe of all that is good, especially Coen films, has come around a bit, with Scott Foundas opining that No Country is the Coens' "most measured, classical film of their 23-year career, and maybe their best."

Getting uneasy yet, true Coen admirers? You should be. Something very wrong here. Who the hell watches Coen films for measured classicism? Nobody who really likes them, that's who. The Coens mastered film classicism with their ABCs and zoomed on from there. No, what we have here, instead of critics damning the Coens with faint praise, is critics damning them with loud praise. You keep reading these reviews and you realize the damning part is indeed woven into the praise itself. ("Mischievous high spirits"? What are they, elves?) Or else it’s just about to emerge in the next sentence...