Violence in Film: The Coen Brothers, Part 2

the-coens-talk-inside-llewyn-davis-cannes-2013-135157-a-1368969818-470-75Editor’s Note: In this 2-part series, Jesse Nickel considers violence in the films of the Coen Brothers. The first part will posted on Monday 10 February.

In the previous post, I discussed the characteristics of the violence of the Coen brothers’ films which render it unique. I argued that by portraying violence with stark and sometimes shocking brutality, the Coens effectively demonstrate its disturbing effect within the real world of the stories they tell. Furthermore, such violence is integral, not extraneous, to these stories. The Coens create situations in which their characters are, if not forced, then strongly compelled to resort to violence as an apparently “necessary” reaction.[1]

In this way, violence becomes a part of the inherent, underlying moral commentary of every Coen brothers film. The Coens do not set out to offer some sort of completely objective portrayal of the reality of a harsh and violent world, and leave it at that. Their films are certainly not amoral, nor is the violence they depict. Even when the violence is committed by one of the “good guys” in their films, it is not positive. It does not (or at least should not) build up the image of these characters in the viewers’ eyes. Rather, even their violence – which may be enacted for apparently valid, “just” reasons – frequently has destructive and devastating consequences, causing wounds (physical and/or emotional) which the characters carry with them the rest of their lives. When young Mattie Ross, (the heroine of the Coen’s True Grit [2010]) finally kills Tom Cheney, the outlaw she has been chasing through the whole film, the force of the gunshot propels her backward into a crevice filled with snakes. Though she survives the snake bite, it is only at the cost of her arm being amputated. For the Coens, violence, no matter the reason it is undertaken, is a destructive force.

The Coens’ distinctive perspective upon and portrayal of violence is precisely that which made No Country for Old Men such a powerful and successful film. Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the story has as its central theme the inescapable (and seemingly increasing) violence and brutality of the world. This is the Coens’ most violent film, yet it still manages to avoid the salaciousness of the slasher film or the over-the-top entertainment of the action movie. As LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan notes, “[No Country] doesn’t celebrate or smile at violence, it despairs of it.”[2]

It achieves this by means of Anton Chigurh, perhaps the Coens’ most memorable villain. A hitman sent to track down a suitcase of money lost when a drug deal goes sideways, Chigurh is the epitome of a heartless killer. For him, bloodshed and murder are actions just like any other. He has no moral or ethical attachment to them whatsoever. They are a means to an end; the consequence of a deal made, or a coin flipped. Juxtaposed with Chigurh is the sheriff chasing him, the aging Ed Tom Bell, who feels helpless and inadequate in the face of the “devastating trail of death and depravity”[3] Chigurh leaves behind. “I feel overmatched”, Bell confesses, and he is. For Chigurh, mercy and compassion have no meaning. His ability to deal with any situation in the manner which most effectively advances his purposes, regardless of moral significance, with no hesitation to use ruthless brutality, renders him a practically inhuman creature. In Chigurh, the Coens let loose a force of evil in the “real” world of the film, and observed the devastating effects. Foremost amongst them is violent death, which follows Chigurh wherever he goes. In No Country, the Coens’ perspective on violence, which in their other work plays a subsidiary theme, takes centre stage. In this film they unmask violence as the dark, destructive and evil force it is.

Though the Coens do not present a vision for a different world, redeemed of and free from violence – and perhaps some may critique them for this – neither do their films portray the reality of violence in the world with anything even remotely approaching a positive light. The violence in the films of the Coens brothers is undeniably noteworthy. By portraying it with such savage and stark brutality, they neither glorify violence nor utilize it for entertainment. Rather, they compel their viewers to recognize violence for what it is and to deal with it as such: a terrible, destructive force of evil which can suddenly and shockingly break into the stories of our lives with devastating consequences; a reality that is integrally bound up with the brokenness that so often characterizes the world in which we live.

[1] Ryan P. Doom, The Brothers Coen: Unique Characters of Violence (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009) xi.
[2] Kenneth Turan, “Violence Overwhelms ‘No Country’,” NPR, (accessed October 26, 2013).
[3] Josh Hurst, “The Coen Brothers’ World,” Christianity Today, (accessed October 26, 2013).

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