Clever Lighting in a Meaningless World

Paper by Bennett Friel.

Ethan and Joel Coen have established a series of motifs that separate their works from all other filmmakers. A unique style that puts them in discussion for the last active auteurs, a mix of dark comedy and narratives inspired by a variety of different sources from ancient Greek texts to classic film noirs. Beginning with their very first picture, elements of film noir have appeared in nearly every film produced since, creating themes and motifs specifically within the noir world of the Coens. Three of their most successful films, Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), and No Country for Old Men (2007), all of which received quite a bit of critical success, including Oscar nominations and victories, are based in this famous Coen-noir world. Several of the motifs of these films are found throughout virtually all of the brothers’ filmography, but these three specific movies tie together rather well to conventions of film noir. This bizarre world portrayed throughout these films can only properly be identified as Coen brothers Noir, as there are several elements of traditional film noir, but with the indistinguishable touch of the Coens.

The initial environment established at the beginning of each film portrays a noir-like sense of isolation, but shown differently depending on the actual area. A traditional film noir is set in a dark, gritty urban city, as all three Coen noirs portray a baron sense of loneliness. Fargo begins with “open highways winding through limitless expanses of snowy tundra…for all that openness is as opaque and existentially oppressive as the claustrophobic urban spaces of its classic noir forerunners (Adams, Pg. 108).” This establishes the very harsh winters of the Midwest, and exaggerates how far away from other civilization the Midwestern communities are by showing these great plains. The Big Lebowski opens on the environment, which is the Southwestern desert of the United States, where Los Angeles resides. All through the use of a tumbleweed, the opening dialogue narrated by Sam Elliot shows the tumbleweed go through the different aesthetics of the LA area, blowing through the desert, across the freeway, next to a taco shack, and all the way to the Pacific Ocean. While this is happening, Elliot is narrating about the concept of The Dude’s laid back lifestyle. In an interview with the Coens, they explain “we wanted to introduce the story with the panoramic view which goes hand in hand with the cowboy song, reminiscent of the pioneer spirit (Allen, Pg. 107).” The opening sequence to No Country for Old Men also begins with a narration, by Tommy Lee Jones, the local sheriff within the story. This set of shots are an excellent example of chiaroscuro lighting, something the Coens do rather frequently in their noir style of film. As the narration continues, the sun rises more and more, revealing the great plains of western Texas. This combination of opening shots and narration is very similar to the Coens’ debut film, Blood Simple (1984), another picture with several elements of noir. Within the first few minutes of each movie, the environment and tone of the story are firmly set, as fantastic shots further enforce the environments throughout the rest of the narrative. An example is in Fargo, as Jerry is trying to go out to his car, there is a shot of the parked car, parking barriers, and endless snow setting up a nice contrast of black and white as well as another shot establishing the isolated, cold Midwest.

The protagonist within all three of these films experiences the noir convention of being thrown out of their regular world, losing their innocence and having to adjust to a harsh reality. The Big Lebowski portrays a middle-aged burnout whose life circles around bowling known as the Dude, who is suddenly forced into this strange situation fueled by the criminal underworld of Los Angeles. The Big Lebowski is the Coens’ tribute to Raymond Chandler, loosely based off of “The Big Sleep.” Joel Coen explains “We wanted to do a Chandler kind of story- how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery. As well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant (Allen, Pg. 88).” As the Dude reluctantly follows this path of crime, he is “beaten by thugs, is pushed around by chauffeurs, is knocked unconscious by art thugs, is drugged by a pornographer, has a coffee cup bounced off his forehead by the Malibu chief of police, is threatened with castration by nihilists, and has his vehicle utterly destroyed. (Doom, Pg. 83).” A rather extensive list of life altering events, all which lead from one to the other effectively creating film noir. No Country for Old Men shows an average west Texan, Llewelyn Moss, as he stumbles across the bloody aftermath of a drug deal, in which Llewelyn ends up walking away with the cash. As the money ends up having a tracking device, Llewelyn is hunted down and haunted by Anton Chigurh, a psychopathic enigma who endangers the life of everyone he comes across. Finally, Fargo shows multiple average Midwesterners, including both Marge and Jerry, watch their lives change. Jerry’s life unravels in front of him, but through a plot that he himself hatched up in an attempt to be more of a criminal than he is (which is not a criminal at all). Marge has a standard, easy Midwestern life that she doesn’t complain about at all. As she catches these unusual crimes take place in her world, she can’t help but just wonder why everyone can’t be happy with exactly what they have.

From the technical aspect of film noir such as lighting, these particular films along with other Coen films contain several examples of noir lighting. Chiaroscuro lighting, or the dramatic contrast between light and dark, is the greatest example. Used in films such as Blood Simple and even more so in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), many shots portray this use of high contrast. The Big Lebowski shows chiaroscuro lighting via the neon bowling signs contrasting with the night, which are exaggerated during the Dude’s fantasies. No Country for Old Men’s opening sequence is a good example of chiaroscuro, as the sunrise puts high contrast in the horizon. Finally, Fargo uses chiaroscuro also through neon signs, but also when emphasizing the Midwestern plains by showing complete darkness be interrupted by car lights.

Virtually all movies produced by the Coen brothers have an existential tone or theme, rendering the overall character and situation almost meaningless. Anton Chigurh goes around in No Country for Old Men asking people to flip a coin, choosing their fate on life or death. Anton will likely kill the person anyway, making their fate irrelevant. The idea that virtually everyone within the movie will (and does) end up dead, regardless of everyone else’s actions during the film. Llewelyn is shot and killed off camera, and not even by Anton, the main antagonist. Fargo ends with Marge driving Peter Stomare’s character to jail, and commenting on how she can’t comprehend attempting to do something illegal in order to gain money. Marge, along with her husband, are completely content with their simple lives. This situation shows a character who essentially embraces the idea of existentialism, of just being another person, of just living. Meanwhile, within the same film, Jerry continues to be someone he is not. Unsatisfied with his regular life, he attempts to get more in foolish ways, resulting in his downward spiral. The Big Lebowski’s the Dude, however, practices the most existential lifestyle there is. He strictly cares about bowling, to the point where his landlord has to remind him what day of the month it is (and that his rent is late). Unemployed, always stoned and/or drunk, and with little to no drive at all. From an existential point of view, if we removed the Dude completely from society, no one would likely notice or care, proving that his existence “doesn’t matter.” When the Dude’s existence does begin to matter when he is mistaken for the other Lebowski, his life is totally disrupted. All the basic responsibilities acquired by the Dude throughout the movie are not desired by him at all, and are usually very poorly executed if at all. When the story ends, and things more or less end up back the way they were, the Dude is happy again, as he is in his niche of being an existentialist. He happily continues his habits of drinking, smoking, and bowling.

With several traits and themes being shared among most Coen brothers pictures, the conventions of film noir are firmly established in several of these movies. Fairly generic styles of noir, combined with a twist of the Coens, result in several award-winning films. These different worlds created to demonstrate life’s strange tales and meaninglessness through the use of creative lighting and cinematography are what categorize these films as noir, but also are unique to the Coens via their signature style of dark humor and subtle communistic input. In a film era years removed from the prime of film noir, and with the addition of the genre of neo-noir, the Coens have a firm understanding of the traditional styles, as well as have been the biggest modern contributors in continuing the art of classic film noir.

Works Cited:
Adams, J. The Cinema of the Coen Brothers: Hard-Boiled Entertainers. Director’s Cuts. Columbia University Press. New York. 2015.

Allen, W.R. The Coen Brothers Interviews. University Press of Mississippi. 2006.

Doom, R. The Brothers Coen. ABC-CLIO, LLC. Santa Barbara, CA. 2009.


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