Joel and Ethan Coen, commonly called The Coen Brothers in the film business, are United States directors best known for their quirky comedies like Fargo and Raising Arizona; the brothers write their own scripts and alternate top billing for the screenplay. Joel gets credit for directing the films, but the two brothers work so closely together and share such a strong vision of what their film is to be that actors report that they can approach either brother with a question and get the same answer. The brothers are known in the film business as "the two-headed director."
Joel Coen was born November 29, 1954, and has been married to actress Frances McDormand since 1984; they have an adopted baby named Pedro.
Ethan Coen was born September 21, 1957, and is married to film editor Tricia Cooke. Both are frequently credited in their own films as editor under the name "Roderick Jaynes." The Coen Brothers grew up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. Their parents were both professors, with their father's specialty in Economics, and their mother's in Art History.
Owing a heavy debt to film noir and other film styles of the past, the Coen brothers' films combine dry humor with sharp irony and shocking visuals, most often in moving camera shots. The Coens prefer not to put the opening credits at the very beginning of the film.
The Coen brothers' films typically feature a combination of dry wit, exaggerated language, and glaring irony. The brothers frequently use dialogue to develop characters and advance plot. The exaggerated language is sometimes erudite (as in Tom's "if I'd known we were going to cast our feelings into words, I'd have memorized the Song of Solomon") but more often failed erudition ("Jesus, Tom, I was just speculatin' about a hypothesis" (Miller's Crossing), "You know, it's proven that cigarettes are carci--carci--cancer-causing" (Fargo), and The Dude's imitation of Maude's "in the parlance of our times," appending it with "You know?... Man?" (The Big Lebowski).)
The Coen brothers storyboard their films extensively before filming. They state that it helps them get the budget they want as they can show where most of the money will be going.
Visually, the Coens favor moving camera shots, especially tracking shots and crane shots; when the camera is "static" it is often still drifting slightly. Their films are also distinguished by cinematic visual flourishes that mark turning points in their films.
The "Raimi cam" rush
Occasionally in their tracking shots they "rush" the camera forward, as in the scene in Raising Arizona where Nathan Jr. is discovered missing; the Coen brothers dubbed the rush forward the "Raimi cam" in tribute to their longtime friend and director Sam Raimi, who used rushes extensively in Evil Dead (which Joel Coen helped edit). The Hudsucker Proxy features not one but two consecutive rushes when Norville shows Mussburger's secretary the Blue Letter: first on the mouth of the lady screaming on the ladder, and then on Norville reacting to the scream.
The Coen brothers' earlier films made extensive use of wide-angle lenses. Cinematographer Roger A. Deakins (who replaced Barry Sonnenfeld when Sonnenfeld left to pursue a directing career) has been trying to wean them off the lenses since he started working with them (the lenses allow great depth of field but also cause considerable distortion in the apparent size of objects based on how far they are from the camera). Deakins has been working towards longer lenses, which appear to shorten the distance between objects, but have shallower depth of field.
The Coen brothers use camera angles which sometimes hide rather than reveal information, as in Fargo when Jean Lundegaard is hiding in the shower, in Miller's Crossing when Tom goes into his room after Leo leaves, (Verna is on the bed behind him), and in Blood Simple when Abby is sitting up in bed with Ray and the Volkswagen pulls up outside her window.
They also frequently "hide" their cuts in a close-up on an object, in the style of Hitchcock's Rope: one occurrence of this is obvious in Fargo, when Carl is banging on the television to get it to work (when the picture finally comes in clearly it is in fact a cut to Marge's television as seen from her bed). The brothers make a similar cut in Miller's Crossing when the close up of the window at Vernie's house pans away to show a man dead on the floor at another; in The Hudsucker Proxy when Amy Archer is cheering "Go Eagles!" after Norville hires her (the film cuts to her showing the same cheer to her coworker at the newspaper); and in Blood Simple when the "close-up" of the ceiling fan over Marty's head at the bar turns out to be from Abby's point of view on the couch at Ray's house.
Blood and guts
The Coens also show a fascination with both blood and vomit; Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, and Blood Simple all show elaborate puddles of blood, whereas in Fargo it's a wide spray in the snow coming from a wood chipper; Tom vomits in Miller's Crossing once off-screen at his house and once on-screen in the crossing itself; Marty vomits in Ray's yard in Blood Simple, and then vomits again on the floor later (but this time it's a torrent of blood); Charlie vomits off-screen in Barton Fink; and Marge bends over to vomit but doesn't in Fargo.
Film Noir and misunderstanding
Stylistically, Coen Brothers movies show a heavy debt to film noir, featuring stark contrast in lighting (most notably in Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, and Fargo) and the typical theme of people being in over their heads in a scheme. Their movies often deal with kidnapping. A near universal plot device is misunderstanding: misunderstanding over who killed The Rug and who took his hair causes friction between different mobs in Miller's Crossing; misunderstanding of Norville's blueprint causes him some grief later in The Hudsucker Proxy; everyone except for the nihilists in The Big Lebowski misunderstands Bunny's kidnapping; and in Blood Simple, misunderstanding is the driving force behind the entire plot past the thirty-minute mark. The Coen brothers' film The Man Who Wasn't There pays homage to film noir, with a plot that seems an update/twist of The Postman Always Rings Twice. The film is in black and white and has been lauded by various critics for both its cinematography and its sharply drawn, fairly sympathetic characters, though many critics take issue with the sharp turn in plot towards the end.
Depictions of various cities, states, and regions of America
The various aspects that make the character of a city, state or region of America are an integral component in several Coen Brothers films. "Raising Arizona" strongly features the distinct Arizona landscape, and some of the movie's characters were stereotypes of typical Arizonans. Similarly, in "Fargo" the landscape and accents of North Dakota and Minnesota are an essential component of the film. "The Big Lebowski" is the Coen's Los Angeles film, with the Dude and other characters as emblamatic of the city's ecclectic population. "O Brother Where Art Thou" is distinctly Southern, as it was filmed in rural Mississippi, most of the characters speak with pronounced Southern accents, and the soundtrack is a mix of old country and folk songs. "Barton Fink" is in some respects a satire on another famous area of Los Angeles - Hollywood. There are several scenes in the movie that in the Coen Brother's distinctly farcical way, paint the movie industry, and movie executives in particular, in a very unflattering light.
The Coen brothers circle
The Coens used Barry Sonnenfeld as cinematographer through Miller's Crossing; then Sonnenfeld left to direct his own films and has had great success at it with The Addams Family, Get Shorty, and, most notably, Men in Black. Roger A. Deakins has been the Coen brothers' cinematographer since Sonnenfeld's departure.
Sam Raimi also helped write The Hudsucker Proxy, which the Coen brothers directed; and the Coen brothers helped write Crimewave, which Raimi directed; Raimi took tips about filming A Simple Plan from the Coen brothers, who had recently finished Fargo (both films are set in blindingly white snow, which reflects a lot of light and can make metering for a correct exposure tricky).
The Coen brothers frequently cast actors John Turturro, Michael Badalucco, Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, John Goodman, and Jon Polito, all of whom have appeared in at least three Coen productions.
All of their films had been scored by Carter Burwell, with the exception of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", scored by T-Bone Burnett.