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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

Top five Coen movies

Take it from Javier -- Walmart haircuts can make the sanest man homicidal.

Take it from Javier -- Walmart haircuts can make the sanest man homicidal.

Coen brothers fans are a bit like Browncoats or Trekkies in that they are devoted beyond reason and they have definite opinions (more deeply held beliefs, if we’re splitting hairs) about which movies deserve the coveted top spots on a “Best of the Coens” list. Throwing one’s proverbial hat into that ring is a bit tricky, not to mention dangerous, especially considering the fact that the Coens have given us fans so many creative, gruesome and dementedly gleeful ways to dispatch human life.

Still, there comes a time in every Coen fan’s life when the list has to be made. It’s like fate, or Anton Chigurh – we have to stare down that cattle gun at some point. For me, that day is today. It’s not a happy day, you understand, because I have spent over an hour creating and revising this list. My choices may haunt me in my sleep tonight because that’s how deep my insanity – um, I mean my devotion to the Coen brothers’ films – is. I am a fangirl to the nth degree.

Sheesh, enough with the lip flapping. The Coens never use five words when two will do, so here’s my Top Five Best Coen Films:

  1. “No Country for Old Men” (2007) – The beauty of the Coens is that just when you think they can’t top themselves, they do, and then they make you feel like damn fool for doubting they could do it in the first place. “No Country for Old Men” managed to be a smart, taut thriller, a caper-gone-wrong, an epic tragedy, a pitch-black comedy, a work of bitter irony and grandiose themes, an examination of pure evil and bad haircuts and a beautiful showcase for the acting talents of Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and, most important, Javier Bardem. Until “No Country,” I didn’t believe a movie could be flawless. But I have drunk the Kool-Aid, and now I believe.
  2. “Blood Simple” (1984) – For most directors, the first movie is a test-the-waters affair, a risk that produces a finished product no one quite wants to remember. Not so with Joel and Ethan, who created their second-best film the first time out. “Blood Simple” is a fine work of film noir, but it also serves as a perfect introduction into the ideas and devices that became Coen trademarks: unexpected violence; darkly comic foreshadowing; themes of good versus evil, the inevitability of fate, revenge and the perils of greed and stupidity. As a bonus, it gave us cinema history’s most horrifically funny line: “He was alive when I buried him.” After 25 years, few movies retain their capacity to elicit sheer terror. “Blood Simple” is one of them.
  3. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001) – In 2001, the Coen brothers and cinematographer Roger Deakins gave us this gorgeously lensed bit of film noir that stands as one of the most visually stunning of the genre. Then they went and cherry-picked a beast of a cast to surround a listless barber hero, played to sardonic perfection by Billy Bob Thornton – a lineup that includes Frances McDormand in a Coen-best performance, and a great cameo by Tony Shaloub. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is one of those rare films that manages to be as aesthetically pleasing as it is wonderfully acted. At the very least, it’ll put you off dry cleaning for life.
  4. TIE: “Raising Arizona” (1987)/“The Big Lebowski” (1998) – My trousers would catch alight if I said I could name one of these as my favorite comedies and ignore the other. The choice is too difficult, so I took the cheater’s way out (I’m a cheater with flaming pants) and picked ’em both. “Raising Arizona” was the Coens’ first screwball comedy with all kinds of randomly hilarious touches (the Biker of the Apocalypse; John Goodman’s, uh, crappy prison escape), and so it deserves proper respect. But “The Big Lebowski” gave us The Dude, a rug that magically harmonizes any room, the now-infamous severed toe and Jesus the Bowler. This one’s too close to call, so I declare it a tie.
  5. “Fargo” (1995) – There’s a rule I hold dear: When William H. Macy or Steve Buscemi show up in a movie, any movie, I watch it. But when both actors show up in a film about a botched kidnapping? And that film is directed by none other than Joel and Ethan Coen? Then I break my own neck – and perhaps the necks of anyone standing in my path – to get to the nearest multiplex. “Fargo” takes the classic caper and injects a little local dialogue (that would be North Dakota, dontchaknow) humor, a few twists, a whole mess of violence, Frances McDormand at her funniest and, of course, a body disposal scene involving a wood chipper that’s as disgusting and disturbing as it is funny. This is why they make movies.

Here are my honorable mentions, also known as the “So Close, Yet So Far Away” set:

  1. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Only the Coens would think to retool “The Odyssey” into a story about a smooth-talking escaped con (George Clooney) who drags his two buddies (Tim Blake Nelson and Jon Turturro) along on a trip to get back to his wife (Holly Hunter).
  2. “Miller’s Crossing”(1990) – Gabriel Byrne’s a pretty great choice to star in anything, but casting him in a ’30s film noir/gangster movie with Steve Buscemi and Marcia Gay Harden just plain genius. “Miller’s Crossing” is one hell of a period piece, and the spiraling plot twists make in an exercise in vigilance.
  3. “Bad Santa” (2003) – Billy Bob Thornton is a last-stage alcoholic who works as a department store Santa that pummels Christmas scenery and spends his breaks diddling women in the plus-size dressing. What’s not to love?

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “The Big Lebowski” (1998); dir. by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore

The moment: My glasses have disappeared.

The correlation: I loved those glasses. They really tied my face together.