The Great Coen Brothers Character Tournament, Part 1

Hello and welcome to the most pointless thing I’ve ever done. I can’t wait to get started.

I’ve been on a bit of a Coens kick this spring.  Since I consider them my favorite filmmakers, I thought the best thing to do would be to finally actually watch all of their films. I did that, and while I’d love to write a mini-review of each and every one (and still may do that in the future), the one phrase I saw the most in the embarrassing amount of time I spent researching and reading reviews was “one of the best performances in any Coens film.” Naturally, this led to one unanswered question: which is the *best* performance. The only restriction I put on the seeding was to give an advantage to performances with more screentime.

So of course I made a 64-character bracket. Here it goes:

The Call it, Friendo Region

#1) Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem): No Country For Old Men
You pick the one right tool.

Javier Bardem’s reaction to seeing his haircut for this film was, to quote the Coen brothers: “Great, now I won’t get laid for two months.” The brothers reportedly high-fived one another after hearing this, knowing just how creepy they’d made the generally handsome Bardem look.

Anyway, if you’re reading this, you assuredly know how good Bardem is in this role. He’s an unstoppable, implacable, almost inhuman killing machine with a shockingly rigid sense of honor and terrible, terrible hair.

#16) Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman): Miller’s Crossing
Jesus, I open my mouth, the whole world turns smart.

I’m as big a fan of Miller’s Crossing as you’re likely to meet here on the internet, and the late J.E. Freeman’s intimidating performance is one the stealthier reasons why. He’s one of the two characters in the film who seems to see through the machinations of Tom (Gabriel Byrne), and very nearly gets the better of him on two occasions. Perhaps more interestingly, he’s the most fearsome, aggressive and physically imposing character in the movie, while also being openly gay.

Result: Freeman’s bug-eyed, ferocious Dane is a fun secondary antagonist, but he’s no match for Bardem’s maelstrom of serene insanity.

#8) Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald): No Country For Old Men
I ain’t got the money. What little I had is long gone, and there’s bills aplenty to pay yet. I buried my mother today. Can’t pay for that neither.

It takes roughly half the run time of the film, but Kelly Macdonald manages to turn Carla Jean from a fairly textbook “clueless wife” into one of the most powerful women in the Coen canon (a category which is sadly smaller than one might hope). I’d call her fearless, if not for her climactic scene with Chigurh, in which she’s plenty afraid. Yet she still stands up to him, coming closer than anyone else in the film to giving him pause.

#9) Sheriff Cooley (Daniel von Bargen): O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The law? The law is a human institution.

The late von Bargen only shows up a handful of times in 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but every time he does, it’s as a harbinger of ill portent and fell omens. As the primary hunter of our three main characters, he’s the greatest and final adversary in Everett, Pete and Delmar’s quest for treasure and freedom. Also, he bears more than a passing resemblance to the Devil as Tommy (Chris Thomas King) describes him. In his own stoic way, he’s just as imposing as any of the other heavies in this tournament.

Result: While I feel compelled to give the edge to von Bargen out of respect for his career as a character actor, Kelly Macdonald is just strong enough to get her rematch with Anton Chigurh.

#5) Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare): Fargo
I need unguent.

In many ways, Peter Stormare’s taciturn sociopath is something of a trial run for Javier Bardem in No Country. He doesn’t seem to have a sense of honor or ethics to guide him, but other than that, he’s just as monstrously dangerous as Anton Chigurh ever was. The highway scene, pictured above, is a master class in inscrutable movie villainy. This, of course, makes things all the better when Marge (Frances McDormand), one of the few wholly decent protagonists in the Coen canon, takes him down at the movie’s end. Until then, he’s a chain-smoking, pancake-loving demon masquerading as a very quiet man.

#12) Ted Treffon (Richard Jenkins): Burn After Reading
I’m not here representing HardBodies.

Aw, poor Ted. All he wanted was to get Linda’s (Frances McDormand) attention. He was smitten, and he just wanted to help, despite being maybe the only person in this movie who understood how stupid and dangerous a situation he was in. And all it got him was a bullet in the shoulder and a few axe blows to the head. Burn After Reading is the meanest (and probably funniest) movie the Coens have ever made, and poor Ted just ends up being food for the endless Rube Goldberg machine of farce and death that propels the movie.

Result: If Ted can’t get past a drunken John Malkovich in a robe, there’s no way in hell he can get through something as sinister as Gaear Grimsrud.

#4) Barton Fink (John Turturro): Barton Fink
I’m a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I’m a creator! I am a creator!

Barton Fink is such a petulant character. He’s a mediocre playwright who thinks his plays celebrate the “common man,” despite being actively dismissive of every common man he meets. He’s condescending and pretentious, and not nearly worth the trouble Capitol Studios took to bring him to Los Angeles.

Despite all that, he’s an incredibly sympathetic figure who quite literally wrestles with the Devil. His studio keeps him in a form of indentured servitude, the one person who connects with him during the entire film is murdered in his bed, and he’s helpless to do much of anything as the Hotel Earle burns to the ground. He’s hardly a likable protagonist, but as anyone who’s ever tried to write for a living can tell you, he’s an eminently relatable one, and he might be the best of John Turturro’s four roles for the Coen Brothers.

#13) Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin): True Grit
The wicked flee when none pursueth.

For being the impetus of the entire plot, Josh Brolin isn’t a huge on-screen presence in True Grit. When he IS on screen, however, he’s weird, imposing and sort of hilarious (his muppet voice kills me). A good role. A solid role, though not nearly the equal of his earlier Coen performance.

Result: I gotta get more of that Barton Fink feeling.

#6) Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich): Burn After Reading
Yes, this is Osbourne Cox, who the FUCK are YOU?

As I said before, Burn After Reading is probably the Coens’ cruelest film. Nowhere is this better personified than in John Malkovich’s perpetually angry, half-as-clever-as-he-thinks-he-is unemployed CIA analyst Osbourne Cox. While the protagonist in the classical sense (his actions are those that set the plot in motion), Cox is a drunk, insane, arrogant character, whose huge overreactions to every problem that comes his way is the biggest factor in the deaths of several people, including himself.

It’s a great, great performance.

#11) Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson): No Country For Old Men

Another established star whose only Coen credit is a supporting role in a late 2000s film, Woody Harrelson’s Carson Wells is a big swaggering dick who struts into the film and limps meekly out after being measured against Anton Chigurh, and found wanting. Interestingly, an early line of dialogue refers to the cartel murdering a judge in San Antonio, something Harrelson’s father, a convicted hitman, was accused of doing.

Result: Some solid performances here, but Wells feels more like Woody Harrelson hanging out for a bit, where Cox feels more like a firmly established character in his own right.

#3) H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage): Raising Arizona
There’s what’s right and there’s what’s right and never the twain shall meet.

Looking back, it’s amazing that Nicolas Cage and the Coens ever worked together at all. The former is one of the most famous improvisers in the industry, the latter notorious for their adherence to script and storyboard. Allegedly, the relationship was a strained if respectful one. Watching Raising Arizona, it seems remarkable that more of Cage’s electric performance wasn’t made up on the spot. A career recidivist, Herbet I. McDunnough (“Hi” for short), is the first true motormouth in the Coens’ films, combining his mile-a-minute loquaciousness with reserved, almost serene voiceover work. A remarkable character from a remarkable film.

#14) Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini): The Man Who Wasn’t There
What kind of a man are you?

Another established star to make just one movie with the Coens, the late James Gandolfini had to be persuaded to dip into his off-time filming The Sopranos to play Big Dave Brewster. If that’s true (and the timeline would certainly match up), then it’s not too difficult to see the Soprano patriarch in his performance. There’s that hulking, scrunched posture. The same predatory wheezing. The patented self-denial. So really, this is a movie where Tony Soprano shows up for about 45 minutes and then Billy Bob Thornton kills him.

Result: As much as I want to pay tribute to Gandolfini, always one of my favorite actors, he’s again only in about half of his movie. H.I. McDunnough moves on casually.

#7) Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed): A Serious Man
We’re gonna be fine.

What an odious, disgusting human being Sy Ableman is. Played to grimy, abhorrent perfection by Fred Melamed, Sy first arrives in A Serious Man as the man courting Judith (Sari Lennick), the wife of our main character, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). He and Judith want to be together, but he insists on making Larry get a get (a legal Jewish divorce). As the film progresses, it’s also revealed that Sy wants Larry to move out of his own home (“the Jolly Roger is very livable”) and has been sending letters that endanger Larry’s tenure, all while being paternally forebearing. To top it all off, Sy has the gall to die in a random car accident and poor Larry gets heaped with the bill. Just the perfect asshole, and a terrific performance.

#10) Jesus Quintana (John Turturro): The Big Lebowski
What’s this day of rest shit? What’s this bullshit?

The Lebowski lovers among you may be wondering why John Turturro’s indelible pederast Jesus Quintana is so low. As I said before, I took total screentime into account. He’s in like three scenes.

But my word, are they all great scenes. One of the few truly improvised performances in any of their films, Turturro was allowed to embellish his own lines and mannerisms, and the result is the most idiosyncratic bowling adversary in the history of cinema.

Result: I’m surprising myself a little bit here, but I’ve got to go with the upset. Feels unfair to Melamed, who per minute gives one of the most astonishing performances in any Coens film, but I try to live my life by one simple rule:

Nobody fucks with the Jesus.

#2) Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton): The Man Who Wasn’t There
Me, I don’t talk much… I just cut the hair.

If there’s any Coens movie you haven’t seen, it’s most likely to be The Man Who Wasn’t There. It wasn’t exactly marketed well, it was released in a bit of a hurry, and it’s not the most explosively dramatic movie in the world. That being said, it’s probably the purest genre fare the brothers have yet made. It’s Noir, through and through, and Billy Bob Thornton gives a staggeringly controlled performance. As passive, alienated blackmailing barber Ed, Billy Bob gets a full showcase for his actorly control, expressing most of his thoughts through chain-smoking (Thornton says that his work on this film is what inspired him to quit smoking).

It’s his constant monologue that works as the heart of this extraordinarily melancholic film, however, and that’s what sticks with me as I write this.

#15) Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell): Fargo
No Jean, no money!

Another taciturn, angry member of the Greatest Generation, Harve Presnell’s Gustafson patriarch Wade is, while not explicitly a villain, one of the more imposing figures in their films. He exists as the natural foil to his son-in-law Jerry (William H. Macy), and their entirely one-sided rivalry is the primary impetus for the plot of Fargo. Wade is a self-made man, and interestingly, the biggest proponent of American capitalism in the film. He does what he wants, when he wants, and he doesn’t care how many little men he crushes in his way (notice how, when characters like Jerry or Carl complain about the encroaching ice, they generally do so when having money troubles).

Anyway, Wade gets himself killed, and it’s the most blackly hilarious part of the entire film.

Result: I could talk a lot more about Fargo’s undercurrents, but ultimately Wade Gustafson is just a symptom of them, not the cause. Ed Crane is too towering in its affectlessness to lose here.

The Ya You Betcha Region

#1) Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand): Fargo
And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.

I don’t have enough words to describe all the things that make this one of the great performances not only in Coen history, but in the history of film. I fear that no one has enough words for it. Suffice it to say that this, the crown jewel of Frances McDormand’s very good career (thankfully, her marriage to Joel Coen has given her a plethora of great roles), is the most succinctly human role anyone’s yet had in one of their movies.

#16) Baird Whitlock (George Clooney): Hail, Caesar!
A truth we could see if we had but…

He’s going to lose, but shoutout to George Clooney for continuing to agree to play idiots in Coen movies. It’s one of my favorite things, and Baird Whitlock might be the dumbest he’s yet played. There are several scenes where a confused Baird tries to equate the tenets of Communism with Hollywood debauchery, and they’re all great. Hail, Ceasar!’s biggest problem is that it’s full of really good performances that don’t get time to breathe, but Baird Whitlock is perhaps the only one who feels complete.

Result: But yeah, Margie’s moving on, here.

#8) Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum): Hail, Caesar!
*singing* No dames!

When I said that several performances in Hail, Caesar! needed more time to breathe, I was referring to this one. Channing Tatum has exactly two scenes in this movie, and they’re both pure gold. Firstly, there’s the extended song and dance number (pictured above), which is almost too good and pure to be defiled by me. Secondly, there’s the scene where Gurney, revealed as a Communist agent, makes his way onto an escape submarine planted off the coast of Malibu. It’s a wonderful undercutting of serious Cold War espionage fare with Tatum dramatically flipping his hair and sashaying his way into being the most flamboyant Soviet spy in recent memory. Wonderful.

#9) Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld): True Grit
Time just gets away from us

Precociousness is a tricky tightrope in a movie. Hailee Steinfeld, the winner of a nearly nationwide search for Mattie Ross in the Coens’ adaptation of Charles Portis’s True Grit, walks that line as finely as any child actor has ever done. Seemingly scene by scene, she oscillates from strong, confident child to almost a parody of strong, confident children. Very little of this is Steinfeld’s fault, and more that the story calls for a 14-year-old girl to be wholly more capable than should be possible. Still, it’s enough to drop her in my estimation.

Result: Burt Gurney dances his way into the second round.

#5) Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro): Miller’s Crossing
I CAN’T DIE OUT HERE IN THE WOODS!… like a dumb animal. I can’t… die!

If you haven’t seen Miller’s Crossing (which you should do, for many reasons), you could be forgiven for not knowing how great John Turturro (in his first Coen role) was in it. Equal parts conniving and pathetic, Turturro’s slimy grifter is the soul of Miller’s Crossing, the beating heart of weirdness that keeps the labyrinthine plot moving.

#12) Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins): The Hudsucker Proxy
You know, for kids!

This is a difficult entry. On one hand, Tim Robbins is amazingly charming and commits fully as Norville Barnes, the star of The Hudsucker Proxy. On the other, Tim Robbins (an inherently intelligent performer) being cast as a Norville (a doofus) undercuts most of the drive of the  narrative, since it seems as though he’s only pretending to be stupid. It’s a tricky balance, one the movie, for all its wonders, never quite gets right.

Result: LOOK INTO YOUR HEART! Bernie Bernbaum cannot die here in the first round, like some kind of animal.

#4) Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin): No Country For Old Men
I’m fixin’ to do something dumber than hell, but I’m going anyways.

Remember when Josh Brolin wasn’t an A-list star? It seems strange to think of now, but there was a point when he was James Brolin’s son who was in The Goonies. Now he’s a dependable leading man (and a dependable Coens collaborator). That all started here, with the thankless role of taciturn almost-protagonist Llewelyn Moss in 2007’s No Country For Old Men. He’s one of three titanic roles the movie stands on, and his is probably the most based in action sequences of the three. Brolin is up to the task (despite breaking a shoulder shortly after being cast, which was coincidentally covered by Llewelyn being shot in said shoulder relatively early on). Moss’s death at the end of act three seems like the rug being pulled out from under the audience at first, until you realize the truth: he wasn’t the film’s main character. The film has no main character. A great, star making performance.

#13) Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand): Burn After Reading
Mr Crapkin… Is this a secure line?

Another Coen film, another juicy role for Frances McDormand. The closest thing Burn After Reading has to a central character, her turn as the body-obsessed Linda is the dark heart of the film. She’s the one who knows the most of what’s going on, and the only main character not to be dead, in a coma or on a flight to Venezuela at the film’s end. One of the sickest (and funniest) films in the Coen canon sees the dumbest and cruelest character in their history come out on top.

Result: That being said, no way in hell Josh Brolin gets taken out this quickly.

#6) Leo O’Bannion (Albert Finney): Miller’s Crossing
I figure I can still trade body-blows with any man in this town.

Forgive me for repeating myself, but Miller’s Crossing is a hell of a film. Albert Finney is one of the biggest reasons why. For roughly 90% of his screentime, he’s an affable, even likable gangster alternative to the gruff Tom Reagan and the completely insane Johnny Caspar. He likes Verna and he doesn’t like her brother Bernie, but he keeps Bernie safe because he says he will. He is the exception to the old Machiavellian line about being feared more than being loved.

Until he picks up a Thompson. In one of the very best action scenes the Coens have ever done, Leo defends himself from a group of assassins without leaving a scratch on his person. It’s a top-heavy performance, but my word, what a top.

#11) Roland Turner (John Goodman): Inside Llewyn Davis
George Washington Bridge? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally. George Washington Bridge? Who does that?

What a perfect asshole Roland Turner is. An old jazzman who, for a brief spell, hitches a ride with the eponymous folk singer in the masterful Inside Llewyn Davis, he says every terrible thing one could imagine saying to another musician (“well if you can make a living at it, more power to you”), before overdosing on heroin several times and being left alone on a highway with a homeless cat (if the cat is representative of Llewyn’s responsibilities, then him leaving those responsibilities with the worst man he knows is fairly telling).

Result: A fine matchup between two thoroughly opposite kinds of patriarchal figures ends with a victory for Albert Finney. The old man’s still an artist with that Thompson.

#3) Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg): A Serious Man
I feel like the carpet’s been yanked out from under me.

Poor, confused Larry Gopnik. One of the Coens’ three tortured men, he’s probably both least aware and least responsible for what is happening to him. If I could choose another quote to represent him, it would be “what’s going on.” Loosely based on Job, Larry spends most of the runtime of A Serious Man not knowing what to do after a veritable avalanche of calamity sweeps through his life. His wife wants a divorce, his brother is in trouble with the law, someone is writing letters disparaging him to the tenure committee, a student of his may or may not be bribing him, one of his neighbors is threatening him, the other seducing him, and so on, and so forth.

Throughout all of this, Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry as an intriguing mix of pitiful, contemptably passive, and thoroughly relatable. It’s a big performance masquerading as a small one.

#14) Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney): Burn After Reading
Maybe I can get a run in.

Another clueless idiot in a much more farcical film, Harry Pfarrer is one of Burn After Reading‘s three principal characters. Of the three, he’s ostensibly the most reasonable and respectable, which is why the revelation midway through that he spends his time building sex machines is such a great one. The film has more than its share of cruel jokes, but the best probably exists when, after spending most of the movie just wanting to get a run in, Harry ends up running away to Venezuela from what he thinks are a cadre of government spies who want to kill him.

Result: Yeah, but Larry’s moving on here.

#7) Edwina “Ed” McDunnough (Holly Hunter): Raising Arizona
Gimme that baby! I want that baby!

Raising Arizona is a great movie. Holly Hunter is a great actress. While neither of these things was particularly abundant in 1987, looking back it’s incredibly obvious. As Ed, Hunter carries essentially the entire emotional weight of the film, which has to work for the jokes to work. If we don’t want Hi and Ed (who are on my short list for the best on-screen couples in history) to succeed, why do we care about all the crazy shit that happens to them on the way?

Ed is a fierce, fierce woman and I love her.

#10) Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston): The Big Lebowski
Strong men also cry.

The Big Lebowski is, as you may have heard, a convoluted film. It purposefully lacks a lot of narrative propulsion, and on first viewing seems to be about nothing at all. Of all the detective fiction tropes it casts down, there’s one it adheres to almost religiously: the seedy overboss who sets up our protagonist for failure. That David Huddleston manages to portray this Welles-ian “great man” as a dangerous double-crosser, an ineffectual inheritor and a giant buffoon is a remarkable feat, and one worthy of more praise than I have room to spare.

Result: After thinking long and hard, I’m going to move Ed on. If both characters were fully equal (which in this case they really might be), I’ll err on the side of getting more female representation, which isn’t incredibly abundant in the Coens films.

#2) Charlie Meadows (John Goodman): Barton Fink

Good lord. I have nothing to say, aside from if you were ever operating under the assumption that John Goodman isn’t one of our greatest living actors, you should watch Barton Fink immediately. You should probably do that anyway. LOOK UPON ME.

#15) Norm Gunderson (John Carroll Lynch): Fargo
Two more months

When I said before that Hi and Ed in Raising Arizona were one of the best couples in movie history, my first reaction was that they were nothing compared to the straightforward charm of Marge and Norm Gunderson. John Carroll Lynch has maybe four scenes in Fargo, and in each of them he exudes a basic decency and love for his wife that no one in the Coens canon could ever hope to match. Quite the range for a man who would go on to play Ted Cruz.

Result: I mean of course John Goodman wins, he’s one of our greatest living actors and this is one of his greatest performances.

Part 2 coming soon.

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