The Joel and Ethan Coen era: A reinvention of film noir

Paper by Gabriel Oakley.

A new era of film emerged out of a devastated post-war western world, which contradicted the consistently jubilant 1930s Hollywood productions by portraying dark, melancholic storylines which were clearly reflected through such features as a low-key chiaroscuro visual style, unconventional protagonists and the introduction of the Femme Fatale. This era of film was given the named Film Noir by french critics in the 1940s (Luhr, 20), which literally translates to ‘black film’. It’s prominence on the forefront of western cinema was very brief however, making way for the end of the Hollywood studio system, and a new era of independent, underground cinema in the 1960s. It wasn’t until the late 20th century when the style was starting to be revisited by auteurs, but no directors truly encapsulated the true essence of film noir, whilst weaving in their own modernist stylistic features, than the Coen Brothers. Their individualistic construction of narratives, use of mise en scene, and choice of characters helped not only to revitalise the film noir era, but through such films as “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, “Fargo”, and “No Country for Old Men”, the Coen Brothers were able to portray their distinct view on traditional american society whilst teaching their audience about the negative implications that always follow greed and deceit.

Mise en scene in Coen Brothers films, not only plays a vital part in visually supporting the moral and stylistic messages that come with the traditional film noir narrative structure, but also provide their films with a truly beautiful visual style. The opening sequences of both “No Country for Old Men” and “Fargo” contains several profound establishing exterior shots that maps out the equally and yet contradicting barren landscapes (Fargo is set in the snow covered land of Brainerd, Minnesota, where “No Country for Old Men” is set in the blistering heat of western Texas), and yet both opening sequences have a similar effect on the audience. The wide lens long shots of the Texan desert portray a deep, natural void consisting of nothing but a stretch of mountains and empty sky; a landscape that forces its inhabitants to survive with minimal resources and with death at every corner, much like what our protagonist Llewelyn Moss has to endure when being hunted by Anton Chigurh. The establishing shots in the introduction of “Fargo” also provide images of a barren landscape, but one covered in white. In the first few shots you can hardly make out any features of the landscape due to the intense coverage of snow. However, following the first few shots, a shot of a maroon car coming over the hill, dissects the white foreground and symbolizes the staining of innocence that we are later to witness in this film, with white being the universal colour for innocence, and the machine of a car symbolizing the constant human brain’s mechanisms of survival dissecting the innocence with blood shed, as the maroon colour of the car is very similar to that of human blood. This intense symbolism preempts the innocence of Jerry Lundegaard, originally a car salesman and family man, becoming indirectly embroiled in kidnap of his wife, and homicide, just to try and gain money. The Coen Brothers production “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, relies more on recurring symbols and motifs as aspects of mise en scene within shot constructions in order to subliminally present messages to the audience. In the opening shot we see a rotating barbers pole, and as the camera pans down, we can see our protagonist working in the shop. As insignificant as this opening sequence may seem, it actually contains very profound symbolism. The barbers shop becomes a safe haven for Ed Crane’s thoughts, which are presented in a classic film noir voiceover style.

Additionally, the rotating barbers pole, always coming back to the start, never moving backwards or forwards symbolizes the melancholic, almost robotic personality of Ed Crane, wi th his emotions and thoughts remaining how they started at the beginning of the film, despite his wife committing suicide whilst pregnant in prison, and him killing another man. This profound use of mise en scene to subliminally plant a seed of what is to come into the audience heads before the film is even 5 minutes in, is present in all three of the prior mentioned films, and reflects how the Coen Brothers have modernized Film Noir to now contain layers of meaning and symbolism; something traditional film noir esque productions such as ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ (1955) and ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ (1950) failed to achieve (IMDB).

The narrative structures of all three prior mentioned films all reflect different character’s inner struggle. This idea of focusing in on a character’s inner struggle with a situation is common in classic film noir productions, however the focus is usually only on the protagonist. In “No Country For Old Men”, the Coen Brothers alternate the focus on three separate characters inner struggles with different dilemmas. What separates the Coen Brothers production from traditional film noir, is that there isn’t one clear protagonist, which can be attributed to their “ desire to go against the Hollywood cliché” (Coughlin, iss 36) . First we see Lewellyn Moss, a Vietnam war veteran who stumbles across a case of drug money, and is consequently tracked by an assassin Anton Chigurh. There are several shots throughout the film where we just see the character walking, or organizing himself with no dialogue for minutes, and yet through a combination of close ups on the characters face, and the intense pain that is present on Lewellyn face that is clearly portrayed following his first encounter with Chigurh, we can understand his inner turmoil of survival far better than we would have if presented through dialogue. The convoluted storyline similarly takes us off to scenes where both Chigurh (the antagonist), and Sheriff Bell (the second protagonist) are isolated, and through intense facial features portrayed by both actors, we can understand chigurh’s struggle for claiming the life of the one man that got away, and Bell’s desire for justice which he never manages to achieve. The reflection of a character’s inner struggles is also present in “Fargo”.

Again the use of presenting this inner struggle through isolating the characters and focusing on their emotions is prevalent throughout this film. For instance, in the scene where Lundegaard has just arrived home after finding out his father in law has been murdered, there is an extended one shot of Lundegaard taking off his shoes. With the only dialogue in the sequence being Lundegaard briefly answering his son calling from upstairs, we can truly see the intense fear and exhaustion that he is experiencing through his hunched over body and pained face. He seems so weak, he can’t even take his shoes off properly. Unlike “No Country For Old Men” and “Fargo”, the protagonist in “The Man Who Wasn’t There” doesn’t seem to have an internal struggle throughout the film. He comes up against challenges, and miserable situations, and yet he remains more philosophical about what life to him means than the feeling she is experiencing. This philosophical nature is perfectly summed up when Ed says “I don’t know where I’m being taken. I don’t know what I’ll find, beyond the earth and sky. But I’m not afraid to go”. This profound mantra on life, reflects further how the Coen Brothers have developed the original film noir style, to deepen its meaning. Original protagonists in 1950s productions would never have such a deep three-dimensional personality, that leads the audience to even philosophize about their own lives.

Overall, the Coen Brothers have successfully reinvented film noir, and gained much success from doing so. Taking the 1950’s style as a blueprint, they have combined intense symbolism and motifs, beautifully shot cinematography, and deep characters with many dimensions in order to touch and leave a long last effect on their audience.


IMDB. “The man Who Wasn’t There.” Quotations. (2001). Web. 21 February 2017
Coughlin, Paul. “Joel and Ethan Coen.” Senses of Cinema. Issue 23 (2003). Web. 21 February 2017
( (Links to an external site.) )
Luhr, William. “Historical oveview.” New Approaches to Film Genre Ser. : Film Noir
(1). Wiley-Blackwell. January 2012. Web. 21 February 2017 ( (Links to an external site.) )


About this entry