A Look at The Coen Brothers’ Common Archetypes: Despondent, Nihilistic, & Overly Optimistic

Although they are more often characterised by their quick-witted dialogue and inventive word play, the Coen Brothers have a more despairing side to them that they tend to break out more underhandedly — their dealings with the existentialist problem of human existence and the search for meaning. Whilst they occasionally address this issue directly in their films, most obviously in A Serious Man, for example, for the most part they rather deal with characters who have already decided on their outlook towards the problem. As a response to this, three primary character types largely take precedence within their filmography: the despondent, the nihilistic, or the overly optimistic.

With primary examples being Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), The Dude (Jeff Bridges), and Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) respectively, the Coens always create characters that are either grappling wildly at that which they believe will give meaning to their life, or merely wallowing in the emptiness. Proof of this phenomenon is found in how frequently the brothers fill their films with everyman protagonists looking to expand the meaning or aspirational reach of their lives with off-the-wall schemes beyond their capabilities.

In Coen Brothers Movies, Goals Aren’t Necessarily Always Grandiose
It is not always even the case, though, that the goal for these characters and schemes are particularly grandiose ones. In Raising Arizona, for instance, all that Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter’s characters Hi and Ed crave, believing it will give meaning to their life, is a child. It is once this is established that their wildly optimistic character traits come to the fore, enabling their ill-conceived scheme to get a child of their own by kidnapping one. With these characters the Coens started a clearly defined trademark in their filmography, the overly optimistic, foolish dreamer, an archetype followed up with The Hudsucker Proxy’s Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) and Burn After Reading’s Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) to name just a couple. For these characters, the world is theirs to make of it what they please, never to be gotten down by the overwhelming odds or the existential conundrums that are thrown against them.

The Coens don’t rely solely on this archetype, however. By their fourth outing as directors, both of their other two definitive character types had been introduced to their roster. Miller’s Crossing brought the nihilism of Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan, a man who after so long in the mob business sees life as nothing more than a game of wits. Staring, unphased, down the barrels of the handguns that are so often pointed at him, we watch him as he navigates a life that has become nothing more than a dirty game, eschewing the friendships and relationships as he goes that may have given meaning to life if only he held it in higher esteem.

Then, completing their trilogy of varying existential attitudes, the Coens followed up this film by staring completely into the void and delving into the world of meaningless existence, unfulfilled goals, and unrewarding careers with the despondent character of Barton Fink. A tale of a man who feels he is prevented writing the type of work he desires and from fulfilling his goals, Fink (John Turturro) ultimately seems to wallow in the purgatory that he feels life to be, eventually being tied to a contract in which he has to work but will never see any of his work produced.

The Coen Brothers Begin Exploring Passive Nihilism
Whilst Miller’s Crossing’s brand of active nihilism quickly gave way to this forlorn attitude towards life’s endeavors, it is interesting to see how, shortly thereafter, the Coens looked to the other side of the coin. As possibly their most famous character, The Dude posits an alternate approach to Tom Reagan’s existentialist attitude that life has no meaning – a passive nihilism. Instead of the live fast, die young frenetic lack of respect for life that was seen in Miller’s Crossing, with The Big Lebowski they broach the notion of living slow, and, well, just living – in the Matthew McConaughey L-I-V-I-N sense. Read More Streaming Online

It is almost as though these filmmakers use their characters as something of an experiment, with their extremely particular yet naturalistic dialogue giving the impression that they simply create a character with a certain approach towards life’s lack of meaning, and see how happily they live. Or, judging by the recurrence of these character traits – with Buster Scruggs’ (Tim Blake Nelson) Tom Reagan-esque nihilistic gunslinging, Hail, Caesar!’s general optimism and carefree whimsy, or Llewyn Davis’ ultra-morose demeanor – perhaps the Coens think these three standpoints encapsulate every life attitude or mood.

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