What do you 𝘮𝘦𝘢𝘯 you weren’t aware I was in the midst of a Coen Brothers retrospective series? Did I not make that abundantly clear? No? Crikey, I let go of the baton on that one. Apologies. Anyway, now that we’re all on the same page I thought it would be an appropriate time to set aside the Coen’s modern, polished works, and head back to the beginning: their debut, 𝘉𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘚𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 (𝟷𝟿𝟾𝟺).
As a standalone film, 𝘉𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘚𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 epitomises neo-noir in all its self-encaging torment with a nod to 1970/80s slasher flicks, but retrospectively when attributing it to the genre-manipulating brothers, the mechanisms and oddities which they imitate from noir and slasher films are the same which guided their current, undefinable style into fruition. Stylistically, 𝘉𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘚𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 is the immature and unrefined origin of what would eventually become the duos trademarks.
𝘉𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘚𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 follows Julian (Dan Hedaya), a married man so defeated by jealousy over his wife Abby’s (Frances McDormand) adultery that he pays P.I. Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to have her and her lover, Ray (John Getz), killed. What ensues can be summarised by the metaphor of Julian’s dead fish: we are all doomed by our desires.
The film is a peculiar concoction of the brothers’ influences. 𝘉𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘚𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 bolsters low-synths, heavy sound effects, and pacey-camerawork, tilting a blood-stained hat to Sam Raimi’s 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘌𝘷𝘪𝘭 𝘋𝘦𝘢𝘥 (𝟷𝟿𝟾𝟷) (which Joel helped edit), whilst obsessively convoluting itself as if being the offspring of noir-classics 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘉𝘪𝘨 𝘚𝘭𝘦𝘦𝘱 (𝟷𝟿𝟺𝟼) and 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘳𝘥 𝘔𝘢𝘯 (𝟷𝟿𝟺𝟿). The youthfulness of these homages would mature into the idiosyncrasies they’re known for, such as the paranoia of footsteps in 𝘕𝘰 𝘊𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘵𝘳𝘺 (𝟸𝟶𝟶𝟽) and 𝘉𝘶𝘳𝘯 𝘈𝘧𝘵𝘦𝘳 𝘙𝘦𝘢𝘥𝘪𝘯𝘨 (𝟸𝟶𝟶𝟾), and the latter film’s bizarre web of misunderstandings.
But where 𝘉𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘚𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 flourishes is in its course and unrefined tendency; the insanity of a slasher nightmare ruining the romanticism of infidelity. The blend of genre is less fluid and more sudden than their modern works— the edges of the duo’s hybridity not yet bevelled— but the conflation of style is still balanced and never out of place. A large part of this must be credited to Barry Sonnenfeld’s camerawork, which is versatile enough to be labelled innately nomadic; always wandering, never settling.
The use of horror tactics creates a sickly sense of dread throughout the film, further aggravated by the characters who are literally dripping with sweat even amidst the cold. The feeling of being trapped in a moment in time isn’t a stylistic trope, but a mechanism that explains the purgatories of self-sabotage. Julian himself is aware of this, stating “I’m staying right here in Hell” before embarking on a quest of self-destruction. And what better way to do this than be accompanied by the Devil himself? In 𝘖 𝘉𝘳𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 it’s Sheriff Cooley; in 𝘕𝘰 𝘊𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘵𝘳𝘺 it’s Chigurh; in 𝘉𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘰𝘯 𝘍𝘪𝘯𝘬 it’s Charlie; and in 𝘉𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘚𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 it’s Visser. For the Coen’s, the devil has a creased face and lives in the South.
Although retrospective series can fall victim to repetitive elaborations, the Coen Brothers berserk hybridity and iconoclasticism disallows their filmography to be a boxset of similarities. 𝘉𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘚𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 (𝟷𝟿𝟾𝟺) is unpolished and therefore unwillingly helpful in somewhat understanding their methods and the origins of, but by the same account, it almost distances our understanding by showing us how dense their repertoire is and how much more they appropriate. A definition is impossible. It’s endless. And I’m tired. But as I walk to bed I’ll remember what 𝘉𝘭𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘚𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 did teach me:
When you hear footsteps, be sure they’re not your own.
Until next time.