The Coens’ koan

Can they map life’s essential chaos?

M. Emmet Walsh in <i>Blood Simple</i>.

M. Emmet Walsh in Blood Simple.

The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? opens with three convicts escaping from a chain gang and trying to decide how to select their leader. The one with the most capacity for “abstract thought” should be that person, suggests George Clooney’s character. Lacking the ability to determine who that might be, they take a vote. Clooney’s and John Turturro’s characters each vote for themselves. Their partner innocently declares his choice: “I’m with you guys.”

So it is that within the film’s first three minutes, the specters of rational thought and democracy are slain, and we are on a journey through another madness induced by Ethan and Joel Coen, the writer-director team who previously created such masterpieces as Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing and Fargo. Midway through O Brother, a Depression-era comedy based on Homer’s Odyssey, one of the convicts advises another that, “only a fool looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” At film’s end they survive a flood by grasping onto a coffin, the Clooney character happily announcing “a veritable Age of Reason,” since the ravaging waters are the result of the arrival of the Tennessee Valley Authority projects to electrify the South.

The mockery of human reason is the motive force of Coen Brother collaborations. Watch any of their films, and you will find the most unsubtle of attacks on reason and the “truth” in which it results. In Blood Simple, the humiliated husband warns the private detective who has brought him photos of his wife’s unfaithfulness that, “in ancient Greece they cut off the head of the messenger.” The Texas P.I. snickers, reminding his contractor that this isn’t Greece and, “Anyway, I can crawl around without it.” Neither the birthplace of Western rationalism nor the absence of a brain can stand in the way of the human animal.

Nor can Sigmund Freud. The unfaithful wife in Blood Simple, played by Frances McDormand, tells her lover, in a thick country accent while pointing a finger at her own head, about her husband: “Marty says, up here, he’s anal.” Her lover tries to take this in, and finally pronounces, “I’ll be damned.” The most explicit statement of their hostility to the claims of reason comes, logically enough, in their film about a screenwriter, Barton Fink. There, an armed traveling salesman, played by John Goodman, reveals his homicidal madness, stalking through a hallway of fire, asking, “Do you want to see the life of the mind? Do you want to see the life of the mind?”

If our answer is yes, the Coen brothers almost always oblige us with a bullet to the head.

At their most entertaining, the Coens offer up the product of reasoning, as in the complaint of a small-time crime boss which opens Miller’s Crossing: “It’s getting so a businessman can’t expect no return from a fixed fight. Now if you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust? … That’s why ethics is important. What separates us from the animals, beasts of burden, beasts of prey? Ethics.”

Even the always specific geographic settings of their characters, from Arizona salesmen to Minnesota cops, serve to exhibit the cultural matrices and limits within which homo sapiens work out their reasons for things.

But the energy of the Coens’ critique seems lately to have hit the same dead end that much of the postmodern movement has come to: once the fragility of whatever we might call truth is grasped, the question remains: How then shall we live? In their last two movies, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, the Coen boys seem to be reaching for the surreal and the mythological, where human rationality is somehow transformed to map life’s essential chaos. But these are among the weakest of their efforts, perhaps because in their drive to relentlessly attack the dominance of ideas, they remain dominated by their own.