Coen Kidnappings | Episode 27

Posted February 21, 2016

On this week's episode, Noah and Chance review the Coen Brothers' three kidnapping films, 1987's Raising Arizona, 1996's Fargo and 2016's Hail, Caesar! 

Find an accompanying column by our Chance Solem-Pfeifer below. 

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Circumstances Have Changed, Jerry: Kidnapping With the Coen Brothers

As a handsomely ratty Nicolas Cage dreams his exiting Raising Arizona monologue, his character, H.I. McDunnough, has a cautiously blissful vision of the future. On the sleeve, it’s full of children and decades lived well, ending in H.I. and Holly Hunter’s Ed McDunnough together as grayed, stooped husband and wife in their Arizona home.

“Or maybe,” the Coen Brothers’ sophomore film suddenly shrugs, “it was Utah.”

It’s classic Coen speak for “this wasn’t so special.” It was a just a story. Maybe even a common one, a slight variation on a different story where events shook out better or worse.

Across 17 films, you could argue the Coens tweak time, tone and environment to hide the similarities in their oeuvre, making them distinct and marketable offerings as dramas and comedies from nearly every decade of the 20th century. But just as much, the filmography seems to delight in its both epical and minute repetitions, from the Homeric to the recurring pomade can. So three of those 17 movies being triggered by kidnappings doesn’t seem like an unaware act, that trio being the wild-eyed Raising Arizona, the neo-classic black comedy Fargo and the new Hollywood tribute spectacle Hail, Caesar!

This particular film family certainly shares a bloodline with the Coens’ more general interest in conspiracy as narrative fuel. There’s blackmail in The Man Who Wasn’t There, boardroom gambit in The Hudsucker Proxy, election jockeying in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and heists gone ludicrously wrong in The Ladykillers. There’s every single thing about Burn After Reading.

At the most basic narrative level, they’re interested in entering stories with something afoot. On a quasi-political level, the brothers seem to believe in forces of power constantly shifting for greater advantage. And on the level of human morality, that the sheep of the world are easily corrupted. In kidnapping, they stage the most human of crimes, putting the supposed villains and the supposed victims in the same room, mucking things up. And not simply out of comedic possibilities, like bumbling around in the comedy of unpreparedness and Stockholm Syndrome. Even played that way, a la Fargo’s Mrs. Lundegaard tripping through the snow with a bag over her head, the point is to show the kidnappers’ bored Schadenfreude.

But these three movies quickly becomes about something besides climbing in windows, spiking drinks and tying wrists, even as everything is swirling around that inciting event, prompting the Marge Gundersons (Frances McDormand), Leonard Smallses (Tex Cobb) or Eddie Mannixes (Josh Brolin) of the world into action.

This winter’s Hail, Caesar! evolves quickest (thought not so steadfastly) into broader commentary, as it hinging on the air-headed movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) being nabbed by a leftist sect of the Hollywood writers. We may feel the most for 1950s film studio fixer Eddie Mannix, but the audience is with Whitlock when the chips start falling, even if we recognize the Marx cliff notes from the would-be-blacklisted and he doesn’t. The kidnapping here is merely a catalyst to Hail, Caesar! airing an ideological discussion: about whether movies are, given their cost in celebrity, labor and lack of integrity, objectively good. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, this is an unfair enterprise on the one hand, but on the other, we’ve seen how beautiful its genres can be through Roger Deakins’ lens. If the studios made dramas of manners via rudeness, musicals of purity via sexual cynicism and high cinema via the low-minded, do they retain any magic?

This a playfully educational crime, for Clooney’s leading man and for us. In this way, it raises a similar lingering question as Inside Llewyn Davis — what’s better: a bitter purist or a happy sellout? — but here with the foregrounded comedic hustle of a Raising Arizona. 

Of course, the plot play of the 1987 movie is more obvious, about stealing a baby to complete a willing family. But transcending the kidnapping in Raising Arizona is more about the impossible repression of guilt. H.I. and Ed’s happiness with their ill-begotten Nathan Jr. is a foregone conclusion if all goes well, but the movie frames the “lone biker of the apocalypse” as a realized figment of H.I.’s wounded conscience. Grenades and sawed-off shotguns pinned and holstered for a moment, on a figurative level the question becomes whether the couple can survive the tipping of moral scales.

Because kidnapping is a crime of balance. An item has been removed from its rightful place, and through violence or ransom, it necessitates return. Which is why, in addition to his incredibly dulcet tones, Tex Cobb’s scene in Nathan Arizona’s office is perhaps the most instructive of Raising Arizona, a bounty hunter softly lecturing a retail capitalist on “what the market will bear.”

Raising Arizona is populated with these people who run afoul of institutions but who seem utterly shaped by them. H.I. and his former inmates, played by John Goodman and William Forsythe, are all rogues who find security in a system of crime and punishment. And telling his own story, the biker Leonard Smalls appears from nowhere sensing an imbalance in the world, a demonic figure of supply and demand who operates outside any social or economic system, but who exists because of it.

The most critically successful of these films, Fargo unsurprisingly uses kidnapping the most artfully as a structural device. The act of a husband having his own wife taken in order to extort her father divides the cast of the film. One mustachioed, dissatisfied screw-up, William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard, mirrors another in Steve Buscemi’s Carl Showalter. We only arrive at Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning turn and at the famous foot in the wood chipper because those two orchestrators are ultimately unable to resolve their own scheme, both of them constantly exasperated by how easy it looked on paper.

It’s grabs at greater masculinity that lock them in fatal one-upsmanship. Carl’s orders are disobeyed by Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Storemare), Shep Proudfoot beats him with a belt, he’s not allowed to have sex in peace. And Mrs. Lundegaard’s father shooting him in the face ossifies his righteousness. On the other side, Jerry, has tried to leverage the entire plot against a decade of being emasculated by his father-in-law. Even as Wade and his friend Stan admonish Jerry, through every step of the ransom Jerry is using a wealthier, older man’s authority to justify the decision to handle the money drop himself. “Just ask Stan Grossman,” he assures his terrified son.

The quiet ending of Fargo — with Marge simply confessing to the blank-faced Grimsrud that she can’t fathom the black heart it takes perpetrate any of this — becomes about the nature of crime itself. Even the tragic fate of Mrs. Lundegaard is the faintest of Coen footnotes.

This misdirection is best of the brothers: They make pretty unpretentious genre movies that end up quickly and quietly pulling a more imposing moral, theological, artistic or mythological card than a three-hour Chris Nolan movie. And they arrive there with a sight gag and a dark smile.

They pulled those cards while convincing you they had no ambition to raise such questions. You give me the money, you get the hostage. This was supposed to be simple.

—Chance Solem-Pfeifer


All The Movies We've Reviewed

101 Dalmatians
10 Cloverfield Lane
10 Things I Hate About You
127 Hours
22 Jump Street
47 Meters Down
Across The Universe
A Dangerous Method
A Few Good Men
Air Force One
A League of Their Own
Alien 3
Alien: Covenant
Alien: Resurrection
American Animals
American Hustle
American Made
American Psycho
American Splendor
A Simple Plan
A Single Man
A Star Is Born
Atomic Blonde
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
AVP: Alien Vs. Predator
Baby Driver
Baby Mama
Bad Company
Bad Lieutenant
Bad Moms
Bad Santa
Basic Instinct
Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Beasts of No Nation
Beauty And The Beast
Before Sunrise
Behind Enemy Lines
Black Hawk Down
Black Mass
Black Panther
Blade Runner 2049
Bleed For This
Body Heat
Boogie Nights
Bridge of Spies
Bull Durham
Call Me By Your Name
Captain Fantastic
Catch Me If You Can
Chariots Of Fire
Chasing Amy
Child's Play
Christmas Vacation
Cinderella Man
Con Air
Cool Runnings
Crazy Rich Asians
Crimson Tide
Danny Collins
Dante's Peak
Dead Poets Society
Deep Blue Sea
Deep Impact
Deja Vu
Demolition Man
Dirty Dancing
Donnie Brasco
Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot
Dude, Where's My Car?
Easy A
Eddie The Eagle
Ed Wood
Employee of the Month
Erin Brockovich
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Event Horizon
Everybody Wants Some!!
Executive Decision
Ex Machina
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them
Fatal Attraction
Field Of Dreams
Finding Forrester
For Love Of The Game
Friday Night Lights
Game Night
Gangs of New York
Garden State
Gone Girl
Gone In Sixty Seconds
Grosse Pointe Blank
Hail, Caesar!
Half Baked
Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Head of State
He Got Game
Hocus Pocus
Hollywood Ending
Hot Tub Time Machine
How High
Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Ingrid Goes West
Inherent Vice
Inside Man
Inside Out
In The Land Of Women
In The Line of Fire
Into The Wild
I, Tonya
Jaws: The Revenge
John Wick
Jurassic Park III
Jurassic World
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Kill Bill, Vol. 1
King Cobra
Kingdom Of Heaven
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Lady Bird
La La Land
Leave No Trace
Less Than Zero
Lethal Weapon
Little Miss Sunshine
Love & Mercy
Love, Simon
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mamma Mia
Matchstick Men
Midnight Special
Million Dollar Arm
Mission: Impossible
Mission: Impossible - Fallout
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Mission: Impossible II
Mission: Impossible III
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Mississippi Grind
Mo' Better Blues
Mom and Dad
Money For Nothing
Moonrise Kingdom
Mr. Mom
Murder at 1600
My Cousin Vinny
National Lampoon's Vacation
Never Say Never
Ocean's Twelve
Old School
One Hour Photo
Open Water
Orange County
Out of Africa
Part of Me
Peter's Friends
Phantom Thread
Picture Perfect
Practical Magic
Public Enemies
Purple Rain
Raising Arizona
Red Dragon
Red Eye
Red Sparrow
Remember The Titans
Reversal Of Fortune
Rock Of Ages
Run All Night
Save The Last Dance
School Ties
Scream 2
Simply Complicated
Sleepaway Camp
Small Soldiers
Snakes On A Plane
Solo: A Star Wars Story
Southside With You
Space Jam
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
State and Main
Step Up
Steve Jobs
Sweet Home Alabama
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Addams Family
The Big Chill
The Big Sick
The Bling Ring
The Brady Bunch Movie
The Campaign
The Cell
The Cloverfield Paradox
The Color of Money
The Disaster Artist
The End of the Tour
The Family Man
The Fast and The Furious
The Fighter
The Flintstones
The Fly
The Fog
The Fugitive
The Fundamentals of Caring
The Hateful Eight
The Hate U Give
The Holiday
The Hours
The Hunt For Red October
The Illusionist
The Indian In The Cupboard
The Insider
The Judge
The Jungle Book
The Last of the Mohicans
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
The Martian
The Matrix
The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix Revolutions
The Meg
The Mexican
The Mighty Ducks
The Mission
The Mosquito Coast
The Muppet Christmas Carol
The Natural
The Negotiator
The Nice Guys
The Night Before
The Pagemaster
The Perfect Storm
The Poseidon Adventure
The Prestige
The Queen
The Recruit
The Revenant
The River Wild
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Rules of Attraction
The Shadow
The Shallows
The Sixth Sense
The Social Network
The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three
The Thing
The Truman Show
The Watch
The Witches of Eastwick
This Is Where I Leave You
¬°Three Amigos!
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
To All The Boys I've Loved Before
Tropic Thunder
Van Wilder
Varsity Blues
V For Vendetta
Welcome To Me
While You Were Sleeping
White House Down
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Wild Things
Wild Wild West
Win It All
Without A Paddle
Wyatt Earp
Young Adult
Zack and Miri Make a Porno