The James Clayton Column: The Coen Brothers: sadistic siblings

Off the back of seeing A Serious Man, James Clayton wonders if the Coen Brothers really actually like us...

Jefferson Airplane and eminent leaders of the Jewish community put the question to you: “Don’t you want somebody to love?” If so, you could do worse than sit back and watch a Coen Brothers flick to find a figure of compassion with whom you can establish a psychic empathetic link.

I get a huge kick out of the movies that siblings Ethan and Joel make. Their features are stylish, sophisticated and always come together incredibly as strong compelling narratives. It doesn’t matter which of their masterpieces I catch a moment of, seeing a single clip of a Coen creation can leave me mesmerised and mulling over said film for days.

I and a great many other film fans love the Coen Brothers (some so much that they occasionally give them awards or host Lebowski Fests), but do they love us? They give us astounding, gripping features, for sure, but off the back of seeing A Serious Man, I’m coming to the conclusion that the brothers are, in fact, sadistic bastards with a disturbing taste for schadenfreude, desperate to pull viewers through a portal of pain and misanthropy.

How many more times can the pair happily produce movies in which an embattled individual is condemned to suffer mounting woe and misfortune? From Blood Simple to Burn After Reading via Barton Fink and Fargo, most movies in the Coen collection have the core theme ‘simple person falls into elaborate chain of unfortunate events and grapples helplessly with the spiralling turmoil’. Repeatedly, as the convoluted plots progress, hopes of reprieve become ever more unlikely and scenarios snowball into absolute catastrophe and inevitable doom.

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Seeing these humble souls suffer every obstacle and extra-layer of trouble that the Coens stack on them is enough to move even the most cold-hearted cinemagoer to sympathy. These characters are sometimes crossing moral lines and acting in a questionable manner, but you’d be hard pressed to say the punishment they receive is proportional to their ‘sin’. Their financial difficulties, family strife and desperate situations are never of their own making. As victims of circumstance it’s unfair that they’re forced to endure perpetual torment.

Considering the grief given to Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, for instance, I don’t blame him for concocting a barmy plot to hold his wife ransom. All these people want is some good luck, affection and respect. If we’re all helpless and have no say over the fickle finger of fate, the least the audience can do is sigh with empathy and offer their support from the other side of the screen.

Yet the Coens keep on serving up these wretches and dragging them through the wringer in the name of making a good movie, and possibly in an attempt to generate ‘pain for pleasure’ (I bet when they’re not crafting films they’re pulling the wings off insects or kicking hobos off park benches).

Larry Gopnik of A Serious Man is probably the most unfortunate of the brothers’ leading losers so far: a simple enough, average middle-aged man who isn’t out to hurt anyone. He’s likeable and totally inoffensive, yet he’s bombarded from all sides by a never-ending deluge of nightmare occurrences, ordeals and disasters. Larry needs more than a hug.

With Judaism inextricably linked to his life and looped into the problems and potential solutions, Larry spends the entire film grappling with big metaphysical, moral questions. Throughout he’s asking, “Why me?” or “What is God trying to tell me?”

For all his pleas to various rabbis he doesn’t receive an adequate answer. No one can tell him what the point of his suffering is. No one enlightens him as to the lesson to be learned. Thrown into a philosophical quagmire of ‘bad things happen to good people just because…’, I find myself hurting for unlucky Larry, leaning over the edge of an existential void, screaming at the Coen Brothers: “Why are you doing this to this poor man?! Give him a break!”

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Why, indeed? I accept the message that the Universe is chaos, that ‘we can’t ever really know what’s going on’ and that we are all meagre mortals scrabbling about under the will of greater forces (whatever they may be), but does Larry really have to be the pincushion on which the point is repeatedly stabbed? As much as I appreciate the Coen Brothers’ mastery and would rate A Serious Man as an absolute classic, I’m eagerly awaiting a DVD release that can offer some alternative scenes or maybe even an entire new cut.

Larry Gopnik deserves some relief. I’m pretty sure that the guy smiles no more than twice over the course of the entire film, so to redress this really upsetting imbalance, I’m appealing for a sort of Sliding Doors-style do-over to accompany the original movie, available for DVD watchers to flip to whenever they feel like giving Gopnik an easier ride.

It could be titled ‘The Dybbuk Cut’ after the doppelgänger of Jewish folklore that features in the film’s prologue. Basically, at bookmarked intervals where Larry is beset by another bad-turn, viewers can switch to the ‘happy’ cut and, instead of seeing the physics professor plunge into more misery, get an optimistic alternative.

Don’t want to see the distressed man have to pay more legal fees, be patronised by his wife’s lover or get more negativity thrust in his face? You now have the opportunity to flick the smile switch and watch events unfold more auspiciously in a mirrorverse where Gopnik’s kids shower him with gratitude, imbeciles don’t hassle him and the rabbis provide resounding spiritual insight.

If we can’t face the insanity of the world and the prospect of A Serious Man – as outstanding as it is – is too much to bear, having an ‘ostrich-head-in-the-sand’ variant edit would be welcome for the days when you want a classic Coen Brothers movie without the sense of melancholy.

Once they’ve remoulded A Serious Man into its ‘Larry-friendly’ form, they could go on to fabricate fantasy alternate versions of their other movies and save further perpetually-punished protagonists from everlasting hell. Imagine the happy, harmonious endings: the fake wife-ransom plot comes off without kerfuffle in Fargo; a wrestling movie gets written in Barton Fink and “it’s a pip”; no German nihilists pee on The Dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski. Oh Coens, don’t you want somebody to love? There’s an entire canon of characters that you’ve created who are crying out for care and affection.

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James’ previous column can be found here.