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All their films are noir, especially the Westerns.
Joel and Ethan Coen — co-writers, co-directors, co-producers, co-editors, co-Coens — are the leading contemporary practitioners of the noir genre. Their first film set the tone. Blood Simple takes place in a triple-cross universe straight out of Sam Spade: Cheating wife, private detective, noble sap, shadowy murder, murder in the shadows, bad things done for a little bit of money.
Their other films follow suit. Sometimes the noir trappings are obvious: The lawless Prohibitioneers of Miller’s Crossing (pictured, top), the monochrome universe of The Man Who Wasn’t There. Sometimes they take the genre sideways: Exporting a genre built on big-city skullduggery to the snowy plains of Fargo, or reimagining Raymond Carver as the pothead-delirium circus of The Big Lebowski.
Occasionally, they make movies that look like Westerns. This is a knowing deception. No Country for Old Men (pictured, bottom) and True Grit are set in wide open spaces that evoke frontier imagery. (You could throw in the Bonnie & Clyde riff Raising Arizona.) But looks can be deceiving. The Coens deny the old Western myth of the boundless frontier. In both films, the frontier is simply a landscape for a more extreme version of the moral negotiation at the core of all film noir.
You could say that the Coen brothers make Westerns about characters trying to turn their lives into film noir. I don’t know why you would say that, but you could.
December 13 2013 — 12:00 AM EST
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