"Down Here You're on Your Own": The American Dream and the Coen Neonoir

Curator's Note

For over three decades, questions about the “philosophy” of Coen brothers movies have placed the filmmakers at the center of debates on fatalism, irony, absurdism and the (a)morality of the postmodern. I would venture the first few minutes they’ve ever committed to film, in their debut feature Blood Simple, spells out the philosophical foundation of their entire oevre, a worldview that is far from pointlessly grim, nihilistic or apathetic, but actually adds up to a clearly—although not always clear-cut—moral outlook on human experience. Set in the spare, inhospitable desert reminiscent Jim Thompson’s crime fiction, the opening of Blood Simple exposes an ambiguously barren, bleak wasteland which, like the blank billboard in one of the shots, communicates not “nothing,” but rather that there is nothing left to communicate but sheer desolation. The images are accompanied by the Texan drawl of an unnamed narrator, a crude philosophy of individualism and resilience. Like all of the directors’ works, Blood Simple is a ruthless burlesque of the self-made man, a drama rooted in central features of the American character: independence and self-determination. In film after film, their characters re-enact the foundational myth of self-fashioning, but all of these schemes of self-improvement invariably came to nothing. What emerges is a meta-rule of deception and coincidences that always spells failure. In certain ways, this is symptomatic of the broader cultural phenomenon described by Jeffrey Sconce as “the shift from the modernist protagonist’s search for meaning to the postmodern ensemble ‘fucked by fate.’” The filmmakers, however, are not disengaging from belief, politics, and commitment; they are strategically disengaging form a certain terrain of belief, politics, and commitment. Their movies frequently focus on crisis moments that seem to betray a kind of cynicism about human life that can be aligned to nihilism, but therein are also the comedy and the social critique, in the contradiction between the infinite ambitions of the characters and the existential finitude that threatens them. The fact that Blood Simple’s commentary is delivered by the most immoral and unappetizing figure in the movie gives the film a thoroughly political bent; Visser’s twisted Horatio-Algerism is like a slap in the face of American ideals. As the first words of their first film, “the world,” for the Coens, is full of misunderstanding, mischance, miscalculation and mistrust. Embracing this meaninglessness—the meaningless of the American Dream itself—might provide the ultimate form of meaning.

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