Since 1984, Joel and Ethan Coen have hit the ground running when it comes to crafting iconic films. Notable for their unique sense of style, storytelling, and dialogue, the duo has managed to entertain audiences around the world and part of that reason is due to their ability to pen an interesting cast of characters. This article will look back at some of the best characters in Joel and Ethan’s feature playlist. This list will only document the films that have the brothers as writers/directors, so works such as Gambit, Bridge of Spies, and Unbroken are exempt since they were only written by the two brothers.
Easily the heart and soul of Fargo. Marge is a simple character, but what makes her charming is the colorful dialogue and her folksy persona. It does help that Marge is in a world full of intriguing villains. She’s a dedicated police officer who stands under the morals of good but isn’t afraid to tackle evil. Marge is an excellent example on how to craft a strong, three-dimensional protagonist without the unnecessary need of a complicated backstory or a political agenda. Of course, Frances McDormand is a big reason that Marge is such a strong presence, with her confrontation with Jerry Lundegaard showcasing the acting prowess of both McDormand and William H. Macy.
Jerry is an interesting combination of a “down on his luck” type character who’s sympathetic, selfish, and a coward. His justification of trying to get money out of his stepfather was logical, but a deplorable move regardless. One of the more interesting parts was him scamming the GMAC for the $320,000 loan. Jerry is a different type of villain. He’s not an imposing threat or a murderous brute like Peter Stormare’s Gaear Grimsrud, but he’s also not an intelligent character like Marge. Yet, that’s what makes him fascinating to watch and his antics within the film help create an engaging moral dilemma that the Coen Brothers do a wonderful job of writing. It’s a good thing that William H. Macy threatened to shoot the Coen’s dogs to get the part (jokingly, of course) because it’s hard to think of another actor who could’ve executed his role so well. However, Martin Freeman does a tremendous job in the Fargo series.
It’s incredible that Javier Bardem almost missed out on the role due to scheduling conflicts as it’s nearly impossible to see anyone else play Anton Chigurh in the way that he does. Usually, the Coen Brothers craft their villains with some type of quirk; however, Chigurh is a straightforward monster with a twisted ideology. He’s remorseless and cold but doesn’t kill without reason. Him believing that fate is the one that chooses a man or woman’s life absolves him of the guilt of killing an innocent soul. That’s why his scene with Carla Jean Moss is so great. She’s challenging his morals and he’s forced to question the type of man that he truly is. He’s easily the scariest villain in the Coen Brothers filmography, and the lack of backstory regarding this psychopath makes him that more compelling.
Hailee Steinfeld came out of the gate strong by portraying the tough and headstrong girl looking for revenge. This update of the John Wayne Classic showcases the range of the then newcomer and she passes with flying colors. Ross’s objective is pretty simple: she’s looking to murder Tom Chaney, the man that murdered her father. She doesn’t come with a complicated backstory and the Coen Brothers wisely don’t try overcomplicating her story to justify her actions. Is it right that she’s taking the law in her own hands by murdering another human being? No. But we as an audience understand the motive and sympathize with the young hero. Mattie Ross is a strong example of how keeping it simple when it comes to characterization can make a far more memorable human being.
Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski
One of the Coen Brothers quirkier characters. The crazy thing about “The Dude” is that he’s a very passive character. He doesn’t really have any strong goals that he’s looking to accomplish. He’s a slacker who keeps getting dragged into crappy situations that forces him to react. There’s nothing all that compelling about him. Hell, his past is pretty much a mystery. So, what makes Lebowski one of the better characters in the Coen Brothers catalog? It’s simple, he’s just a fun character to watch. Once again, the Coen Brothers elevate what would’ve been a bad protagonist in another hands thanks to his unique dialogue and the committed performance by Jeff Daniels. The dude is the type of guy you would grab a beer with, thus it’s hard to not connect with this iconic character.