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10 best (original) Coen characters

Go ahead and cut off Loren's head -- see if he can't crawl around your nightmares without it.

Someone — I’m not going to stoop to naming names, you understand — once told me it was impossible to create a list of the best Coen brothers films. That was the day, I believe, that some vandal ripped the “I” section from my Merriam-Webster because I didn’t know the meaning of the word impossible.*

And yet here I am four months and a Merriam-Webster Online bookmark later whipping up another “best of” Coens list. Is this ambitious, hornery, maddeningly persistent or simply a clear sign that I am squirrelbait? Take a gander at this list and you be the judges…

1. Loren Visser — Villainy, thy name is Loren. There’s no arguing that the Coens are dark, but they plumbed new psyche depths to dream up with a bad guy as slithery and skin-crawlingly creepy as Loren Visser, the “Blood Simple” gumshoe/gunman-for-hire. The never-better M. Emmet Walsh hits us with a scary truth: Spend all your time worrying about the immoral villains and the amoral ones will get you every time. 

2. Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski — Does it get more original than a stoner bowler (Jeff Bridges) who sucks down White Russians like oxygen, knows a guy who can get you a toe (don’t ask how), indulges his acid flashbacks for fun and waxes poetic about the harmonizing powers of his living room rug? Actually, maybe it does. See No. 4.

You betcha I'll catch the funny-lookin' one...

3. Marge Gunderson — Just call her the Columbo of Brainerd, Minnesota. Sure, those “dern tootin'” remarks or that friendly, warm-as-pie Minnesota accent might lead you to believe Marge Gunderson’s a bricks short of a load, but don’t be fooled; the way the divine Frances McDormand plays her, she’s smart as a whip, persistent to a fault and keenly observant. She gets her man, alright, and she’ll do it without getting a drop of sweat on her Arby’s roast beef-n-cheese.

4. Jesus the Bowler — The key to a bang-on cameo is picking an actor who can create an entire character out of little more than thin air. This, I’m convinced, is why John Turturro was put on this Earth: to play The Dude’s arch nemesis Jesus the Bowler, a legend in his own hairnet whose signature line — hell, his only line — boldly and creatively pairs the words “fuck” and “Jesus” in the same sentence. Mark it, dudes, as one of the best cameos. Ever.

Be nice to Chad. He has seen your secret CIA sh*t.

5. Chad Feldheimer — For all its faults, “Burn After Reading” did one thing very, very right: It introduced to the world to Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a frosted tips-sporting, gum-popping buffoon with a passion for physical fitness and not one thought — deep or otherwise — in his puny little pea brain. Pitt dives head-long into Chad’s cheerful idiocy, and the end result is a character as unforgettable as he is funny.   

6. Ed Crane — It’s an unspoken rule of film (and of life, really): The quiet ones are far more interesting than the ones who never stop flapping their gums. Nowhere is this more crystal clear than the Coens’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” narrated by unwitting barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton). Ed’s taciturn as hell, a self-described ghost in his own life, but Thornton lends him enough laconic humor to make him a sympathetic Everyman.

7. H.I. McDunnough — Joel and Ethan, they have a way of writing characters who look and seem simple-minded, maybe even dumb. Then they open their mouths, and out flow rivers of shocking wisdom and insights. And sprung criminal H.I. McDunnough, trying to make a new life with his wife (Holly Hunter), is nothing if not insightful. It’s observations like “sometimes it’s a hard world for small things” make “Raising Arizona” as much a character study as it is a riotously funny screwball comedy.

What does this mean? That's a trick! Facts have no meaning!

What does this mean? That's a trick! Facts have no meaning!

8. Freddy Reidenschneider — If there’s one thing Joel and Ethan know, it’s that names make or break a character. Why else would they have decided to take a boastful, self-important lawyer (the superb Tony Shaloub) and give him a name like “Freddy Reidenschneider”? Hardly rolls of the tongue very sweetly, does it? Instead it suggests an air of blustering confidence, the kind only a character who’s decided to cultivate a personality more outrageous than his last name can have. And in Shaloub’s capable hands, Mr. Reidenschneider is quite a character, indeed. 

9. Jerry Lundergaard — For every foolproof plan there’s a fool behind it believing he’s 17 times smarter and cooler than he actually is. In “Fargo,” Jerry Lundergaard (William H. Macy) is a schemer so comically and tragically inept at scheming that he can’t call the perps to end his swirling-down-the-john plan because he doesn’t have their phone number. Yikes. Then he thinks he can finesse his way out of an interrogation by the untrickable Marge Gunderson. What theheckya thinkin’ there, Jer?

10. Tom Reagan — In every Coen brothers film there’s a character who’s hard as nails, who has cold, steely eyes sharp enough to cut you right in two and not enough humanity to stitch you back together. In “Miller’s Crossing,” a Prohibition-era mob thriller, that man is Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne). He has made being “a son of a bitch a point of pride,” someone notes, and that makes him one tough guy. Then there’s the fact that Gabriel Byrne plays him. And everyone knows that Gabriel Byrne? Yeah, he’s just plain cool.

(Suddenly it occurs to me there’s one thing the Coens don’t do all that well: Write really cool/insane/outrageous female characters. Let’s get a jump on that, fellows.)
*Shameless “Zoolander” reference

26 Responses

  1. You’re right, there aren’t any crazy chicks in the Coen world. The craziest may actually be Judith Gopnik from “A Serious Man”. She was pretty out there.

  2. Great list but why only “Original” characters? You deny us Anton Chigurh possibly their second best character after The Dude.

    • It hurt my insides not to include Anton Chigurh, but I did that for Cormac McCarthy since he (technically) thought up everyone’s favorite cattle prodder.

  3. Oh, how I wish A Serious Man played near you so we could high-five over it and you could put Larry Gopnik on this list (I expect it’ll pick up richly deserved Oscar nods that’ll put it in more theaters at the start of the year).

    • The minute I get that movie on Netflix and watch, you can bet I’ll update my list if Gopnik’s as great as you say he is!

      In the meantime, would you settle for a metaphorical high five?

      • I’ve already sent you a high-five in the post. Incidentally, it can also be used as a patented Bitch Slap™ to express discontent with the theater owners of Charleston

  4. Mark me down as another vote for Gopnik…especially when he starts yelling at Columbia House Records about how he doesn’t want ‘Santana Abraxas’.

    And how did The Dude only land at number two?? I’d call foul, except that I know the dude wouldn’t have any part of a protest.

    He’d just abide.

    • Yeah, that was a tough choice, but Loren Visser is just the slimiest guy ever, and he’s the one who always stands out the most when I think of the Coen brothers.

      I wonder if there’s a club for people who talk in “Big Lebowski” quotes? If not, let’s start one. At the meetings we’ll drink White Russians and randomly select someone to be Donny, then spend the whole night telling him (or her) to shut up.

      • I do know that they hold Lebowski-fest somewhere in the US every year. I kinda want to make a pilgrimage one of these years.

      • I never saw a Lebowski Fest near me, but that made me wonder about starting one. Surely there’s a market out there. Also, I saw that episode of “Ace of Cakes” where Duff made that cake that looked like Bunny Lebowski’s toe. Awesome.

  5. great list Carter, would like to see you extend it to other directors too, would be a cracking series
    for the Coens, i might have to sneak Leonard Smalls from Raising Arizona in there, one of the great bounty hunters

    • Ah, the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, a man with all the powers of Hell at his command! Scary dude, that one.

  6. Well, original characters saves the embarassment of mentioning (or not as the case would be) anyone or anything relating to the woeful misstep that was The Ladykillers. Feldheimer was a great recent character – even in death (which is so purely Coen) – he’s frightfully appealing. I would though include Jennifer Jason Leigh’s kinetic reporter Amy Archer in my favourite Coen characters – she’s like a tough-talking Veronica Lake, fuelled by acid and the constant burning stub of a cigarette between her fingers.

  7. Hey, cool list! I agree though, I’ve always wanted more from the Coens’ female characters (with the exception of Marge). It’s a problem with a good number of filmmakers, really.

  8. Hard to dispute any of the great names on this list, but I would’ve liked to see Larry Gopnik, Sy Ableman, Brandt the manservant and the great Walter Sobchak (this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!)

    • Sobchak was DEFINITELY in the running. Really sold me on John Goodman as a killer-good character actor. I have appropriated his line about “oh, I can get you a toe, dude” to describe complicated things done quick. Of course, the few people who haven’t seen the movie don’t really get it. And maybe think I’m a serial killer.

  9. I’d like to also advocate Madman Mundt from Barton Fink and maybe Delmar from O Brother? But Coen characters are hard enough to narrow down, and this is an admirable list.

    Just a couple notes: I haven’t seen The Man Who Wasn’t There, but I would guess that the name “Reidenschneider” comes from the name of Sam Jaffe’s character in the 1950 film noir The Asphalt Jungle.

    Similarly, the Raising Arizona quote about “little things” comes from Night of the Hunter. Credit where credit is due!

  10. Shame that Gaear Grimsmud did not make it, but still a fascinating list.

    • He almost did! But I couldn’t decide between Grimsrud or Showalter, so I left both out. My tendency is to pick Buscemi, but Stormare was so good in that part.

  11. Is your list going to be amended now that “A Serious Man” is out? Call me crazy, but I think that it is their masterpiece.

    • Good suggestion, Frank — despite what all the haters said I liked (even if I didn’t totally understand”) “A Serious Man,” and Michael Stuhlbarg was great.

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