This video essay by Steven Benedict traces and juxtaposes favored tropes and motifs from the films of Ethan and Joel Coen. His stated purpose—that “the characters talk to one another across the films so we can more clearly hear the Coens’ dominant concerns”—is effectively realized, and without relying on voiceover he makes a lucid and surprisingly sophisticated argument.
As a work of film criticism, “Coen Country” economically weaves shots from just about every single Coen film (minus the not-yet-released Hail, Caesar!) together to demonstrate how the concerns of their characters overlap between stories. The three Coen fixations addressed here are identity, miscommunication, and morality. The repetition of related images and the sound of remarkably similar character dialogue shows both the almost universal relevance of these themes throughout the Coen’s catalogue. It also demonstrates that the Coen’s rely heavily on dialogue to present these motifs. Less talented writers might make the mistake of putting the subtext of what the characters say directly into a character’s mouth. This piece shows that the Coens are far too smart for that. It clarifies how they make a statement or convey and idea solely using miscommunication, awkwardness, and misunderstanding. Less flatteringly, it shows that the Coen’s put a big burden on their actors, as using miscommunication within a film to communicate a theme to that film’s audience is a substantial undertaking—and because the film then relies on their success or failure to work. Since the Coens have a remarkably good success rate, it contributes to the popular notion of the Coens as “actor’s directors” who make good use of good actors in good roles. Is it because they attract top talent? Because they have a keen eye for casting? Are they just good at directing actors? Perhaps it’s a combination of all these factors.
This short video essay is easy and fun to watch, but also prompts a lot of thought about the Coens’ catalogue. Part of how it achieves this dual effect is with rapid, energetic editing. It also makes great use of dialogue, by layering a voice from one film over the images of another. The characters sound like they’re in dialogue with each other, and the lines, down to the exact delivery, often sound as if they must surely be from the same scene—even though they aren’t. The dialogue Benedict uses is also just well put together. The “voiceover” moves organically from theme to theme, which encourages us to think about how these motifs fit together and reinforce each other. This really reveals the power of deciding against voiceover: by making a video more about experiencing an association of sound and images, Benedict makes it more interpretively dense.