Uncertain reflections on the Coen Brothers’ misanthropy

The American film critic David Denby claims, “You are not laughing with, but at.”

When I think misanthropy, I think Farrelly brothers films for crude examples, or films by Todd Solondz and Neil LaBute for more compelling examples (like Happiness [1998]). But you can see it in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), too, as well as many other places.

How do I understand misanthropy?

Misanthropy is an ethical disposition, and it speaks to your person, who you are, how you treat others and what is of value (to you). And it’s not a pretty one. The misanthrope lives above the world. For him, all others are silly or stupid or shortsighted. So, ironically, the misanthrope does not know himself—not because he lacks knowledge of himself but because he doesn’t appreciate the limitations in his self-knowledge.

Is Denby right about the Coen brothers?

And David Denby writes—or perhaps asks—if of all of the Coen brothers’ films, only No Country for Old Men (2007) is a straight story, in which the misanthropy falls aside.

For almost twenty-five years, the Coens have been rude and funny, inventive and sometimes tiresome—in general, so prankish and unsettled that they often seemed in danger of undermining what was best in their movies. Have they gone straight at last?

(Do the Movies Have a Future? 235)

Fargo‘s insistent belittling

This analysis even extends to Fargo (1996), where to some degree it is true that it hits the mark. Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is meant to be laughable at first, just as are his co-conspirators Carl and Geaer (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), although by the end of the complicating action their stupid depravity and toneless violence, respectively, become apparent. Even in their kidnapping, Carl and Geaer seem brusque but still concerned for their quarry (they check her pulse after she falls down the stairs). Then they are pulled over by a state trooper, and three murders quickly result.

The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, at Cannes 2015
Georges Biard’s photograph of the Coens at Cannes in 2015

More pointedly, one of the greatest problems with the film is the ending, which while it hovers over the pregnant sheriff, Marge (Frances McDormand), she leaves us with a shallow comment that there are more things that matter in the world than money. Peter Stormare’s “mute” Geaer, by contrast, seems to offer the commentary her platitude deserves.

Since I saw this film in 1996, I’ve always hated its ending precisely for this empty moralism. But if Denby is right, then Marge’s platitude is just another joke. Perhaps the dilemma is false, that one must not choose comedy over empty platitude, and that Marge’s comment is an exasperated response to what otherwise is unworthy. She is not horrified Geaer’s actions, just disappointed. She does not make him into a monster, just a foolish, misguided man.

Marge is not wrong, there are greater things than money, and when people act for the sake of those things alone, they end up doing horrible things. This is the case with both Carl and Geaer, as well as Jerry (perhaps especially the latter, who seems otherwise oblivious to his evil). But … so what?

What of other Coen brothers’ films?

To put this point more broadly, I cannot accept that most or even all of the Coen brothers films are misanthropic, although they are certainly peddling laughs with some wild abandon. For, to me, despite the comic moments, Miller’s Crossing (1990) is a serious, dramatic film. As one commentator put it, Tom (Gabriel Byrne) is a tragic character caught between his friendship and his love.

As is No Country For Old Men. And True Grit? But let’s turn to the comedies, to which I must also protest that they are not misanthropic. Even the most foolish O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) or The Big Lebowski (1998) are also filled with a love for their wayward, foolish characters. Similarly with Intolerable Cruelty (2003). This kind of laughter is not belittling because these characters are never meant to be realistic portraits. They are buffoonish, exaggerating the qualities we already recognize.

And yet, I feel as though Denby might respond, “thou dost protest too much.” He might be right. Maybe I’m upset because of what it says about me.