Pros:Cast, cinematography, script, themes
The Bottom Line: One of the best pieces of entertainment the Coens have ever mustered--a cinematic treat for cinephiles and an amazing accomplishment of scriptwork.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
1994’s Fargo was a snowy crime noir. Later in 1998 the Coen Bros made The Big Lebowski, a weedy subtle neo-noir. In 2008 they went and made an absurd political noir, Burn After Reading. There’s always a small subculture of noir they’ve been after, but in 2001 they sought to make a by-the-books noir noir--a film noir obviously inspired by the likes of Billy Wilder. Shot on color and digitized to black and white, starring Billy Bob Thornton, it wasn’t a box office success despite the critical praise and failed to find a solid money figure like the previous year’s O, Brother Where Art Thou? had. I have no idea why--this is in my top five Coen brothers films.
Thornton plays a barber, married into the profession (Anton Chigurh scoffs), to his wife (Frances McDormand) who’s cheating on him with her department store boss. One day a new patron comes in (Jon Polito) talking about the emerging business boom of dry cleaning and wanting to find financiers. Bored with his everyday exploits and wanting to find meaning, the barber turns into blackmailer as he sets up a deal with the businessman to get the money--extorted through his wife’s boss. Things aren’t so hunky dory, as we find out in many of the Coen films where crime gets botched, complications arise, and nothing is as it seems.
Based on an original screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, this movie is set in the fifties and is full of the winks and nods of the time period--Americana that doesn’t make sense, but is accepted. The barber’s intentions are unpredictable and it’s hard to tell what he’s thinking about--exquisitely acted by Thornton who puts forth the best effort of his entire career. McDormand is also a treat to watch as she plays a character that’s unruly and domineering. Thornton and her share some really amazing scenes together and yet their relationship is a farce. Other members of the cast include a young and beautiful Scarlett Johansson, a brief stint James Gandolfini and Peter Jenkins, and Tony Shalhoub.
The Coens approach this story using the tried and true methodology of the period and have put together a spectacular film that has some brilliant themes in it of isolation, homosexuality, the American Dream, and true happiness and contentment. And yet, there are unorthodox methods to this approach that some will not understand and others will embrace. I don’t want to give too much away, but one specific happenstance that occurs in the last parts of the film shows up frequently in the entirety of the movie hinting at possible paranoia and it’s something I caught on in my last few watches of the film I hadn’t noticed before. The Coens have literally created an astounding idea that transcends basic entertainment and political statements having crafted these themes through a thoroughly entertaining story that is a throwback to older times with contemporary and bright ideas.
I saw this about ten years ago for the first time and I really appreciated it for how watchable it was and how much I enjoyed the story, but that’s nothing. The movie isn’t just slickly paced and enjoyable, it’s chock full of superb cinematic treats that audiences will hopefully enjoy as much as me. Everything from the cast, performances, direction, and cinematography just rub me the right way and I feel like this is the most underrated gem of the Coens’ complete filmography. It deserves attention for the crafty story and auteur capacity that it proclaims in each shot. If you’ve enjoyed any other Coen brothers movie in the past there’s no reason why you won’t dig this one as well. If you thought they were geniuses before, you haven’t seen nothing yet.
© Jason Haskins, 2012
Blood Simple (1984)
Raising Arizona (1987)
Miller's Crossing (1990)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Burn After Reading (2008)
True Grit (2010)
Read all 44 Reviews
Write a Review
Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older