Joel and Ethan Coen

By: Devin McKinney
September 21, 2013


The COEN BROTHERS (JOEL, born November 29, 1954, and ETHAN, born September 21, 1957) are terrified by chaos, but they can’t stop provoking it. In movie after movie, a character with a safe routine takes a step toward chaos — and finds his world blasted by tornadoes of fate. Their protagonists invite chaos by wanting more than they’re given: they plot crimes (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, O Brother, Where Art Thou); engage too deeply with the demons in their heads (Barton Fink); seek justice in an unjust world (The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men); ask questions too large for the small sureties of law and religion (Fargo, A Serious Man); or obsess over the pitiful transience of the human container (The Man Who Wasn’t There). The Coens’ fear of and obsession with chaos, combined with a style that has seldom been less than hyper-controlled, gives conflict and coherence to portraits of mundane disaster that might otherwise appear (and to some do appear) merely clinical, even contemptuous of the human lot.

Existential security, the deliverance from earthly chaos and meaningless, may be the most desperate and ancient of human wishes. That’s why the tornado that bears down in the final shot of A Serious Man (a real tornado, by the way) may be the most resonant and terrifying image in any Coen film. Upon it, we are left hanging.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Born the same date as Joel Coen: Madeleine L’Engle. Born the same date as Ethan Coen: Drew Friedman, H.G. Wells, Leonard Cohen, Bill Murray.

READ MORE about members of the Original Generation X (1954–1963).


Cuspers, HiLo Heroes, Movies