Noir-y Westerns, Western noirs, perfect murderers, stubborn victims: Recognize fingerprints of Oscar-winning pair
Ethan and Joel Coen are the leading contemporary practioners of the Western genre. Their first film set the tone. Blood Simple takes place in a lawless environment where life is cheap. There are shallow graves, and the only law is the Way of the Gun, and M. Emmet Walsh's ruthless Visser is dressed like a gone-to-seed rodeo cowboy.
Their other films follow suit. Sometimes the Western trappings are obvious: Think of the last-ride duel in True Grit or the border-hopping drama of No Country for Old Men. Sometimes they take the genre sideways: The Big Lebowski begins with a blowing tumbleweed and the voice of the cowboy-deity narrator Sam Elliott, while Raising Arizona (pictured, top) features a demonic bounty hunter who seems to hail from the side-tradition of dystopian Westerns.
Occasionally, they make movies that look like film noir. This is a knowing deception. Fargo and The Man Who Wasn't There (pictured, bottom) feature the kind of twisty-turny plotlines that defined the lost era of pulp crime thrillers. (You could throw in A Serious Man, where the universe itself appears to triple-cross the characters.) But the films focus on characters who hail from the Western tradition. Police chief Marge Gunderson is a force for good, a pregnant Gary Cooper.
And The Man Who Wasn't There is their boldest deception, a film that evokes the look of film noir. But the film is set on a frontier that is chronological if not geographic: A California suburb at the dawn of the suburban era, with Billy Bob Thornton's Ed Crane as a postmodern version of the taciturn cowboy attempting to bring some element of moral clarity to his world.
You could say that the Coen brothers make noir films about characters trying to turn their lives into Westerns. I don't know why you would say that, but you could.