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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Chance

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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


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