Ethan and Joel Coen have proved themselves one of the great screenwriting and directing teams across 5 decades. Jonah Rice is here to give us the list of their 10 greatest movie characters.
Known for their absurd style of storytelling with darkly comedic plots, the Coen Brothers have formed one of the more illustrious filmographies of modern times. This is thanks in large part to their aptitude for screenwriting, the work of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, and for their A-list casts.
However, character building is perhaps the most impressive element of their filmmaking process. From popular titles like Fargo and The Big Lebowski to more underrated films like Miller’s Crossing and Inside Llewyn Davis, each and every movie made by the Coen Brothers will feature an endearing lead character or quirky ones on the side. This is where they truly shine.
10. H.I. McDunnough – Raising Arizona
This guy was one of the few redeeming qualities Raising Arizona (1987) had to offer. Make of that what you will. He was the first true Coen character to solidify the Brothers as common curators of eccentricity. And while it’s not the most critically-acclaimed performance, the role remains a prominent point in Nicholas Cage’s career.
From his accent to his mustache, McDunnough’s over-the-top qualities would come to define the Coens’ style. Their storytelling almost relies on the absurd, and it all started here with H.I. After all, who else could pull off being called “Hi” by other characters? Can’t get much weirder than that.
Picking up Diapers in Raising Arizona
9. Bernie Bernbaum – Miller’s Crossing
As one of the Coens’ more frequent collaborators, a couple of Turturro roles were close to making the list. Jesus from The Big Lebowski is iconic, and even spawned his own spinoff film in 2020. Then there’s Barton Fink, who may have the best arc of the bunch. Turturro consistently portrays some of the quirkiest characters the Coens have to offer.
However, none of them are quite as quirky as Bernie Bernbaum. With a great arc in his own right, Bernbaum’s downfall provided a particular poignancy not often seen in the Coens’ work. That final scene in the forest brought everything full circle for both Bernie’s development and the plot in general. What a performance it was, too.
Trailer for Miller’s Crossing
8. Jerry Lundegaard – Fargo
Despite all of the grisly circumstances he incited in Fargo (1996), Jerry remains a funny character from the start. And regardless of his idiotic choices that consistently push the plot, the audience empathizes with him until the end. The character’s appeal can be attributed to his off-the-wall dialogue, as well as the performance by William H. Macy.
Nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, this remains the best role of Macy’s career. At least, with regard to film. You could argue it’s rivaled by his work as Frank Gallagher in Shameless (2011-2021). But either way, no one could have encompassed the Coens’ vision like Macy.
Official Trailer for Fargo
7. Lawrence “Larry” Gopnik – A Serious Man
In a film world seemingly replete with nothing but brooding, almost miserable inhabitants, Larry might be the only attractive quality in terms of personality. Everyone else is just awful. If it weren’t for Larry’s voice intonations and facial expressions lighting up the darkness of dialogue, sitting through their discussions would be intolerable.
Michael Stuhlberg was nominated for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy at the 67th Golden Globe Awards. Ultimately, though, he came up short to Robert Downey Jr. for his performance as the titular Sherlock Holmes (2009). A worthy loss, but unfortunate nonetheless. And while A Serious Man (also 2009) focuses on the troubles of Larry, it’s those misfortunes that facilitate growth.
Trailer for A Serious Man
6. Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn – True Grit
Though he’s definitely not the most sober gun in the west, he just might be the quickest. And that’s in terms of both gunplay, and wordplay. His speech may be slurred, but his wit is still strong.
Jeff Bridges had a pretty big saddle to fill as Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn. Based on a character by Charles Portis—the writer of the original True Grit novel—Rooster was first portrayed by legendary western actor John Wayne in the 1969 film of the same name. And you could argue that this role surpassed the original.
Bridges received a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards for his work here in True Grit (2010). And although he didn’t win, Rooster remains a staple role of Bridges’ career. Perhaps he always will.
One-Eyed Fat Man Scene in True Grit
5. Mattie Ross – True Grit
For her work in True Grit (2010) Hailee Steinfeld was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards. And get this: it was the actress’ on-screen debut. As a child who hires a former lawman to track down and find the man who killed her father, Mattie Ross exhibits the titular grit around every dangerous corner of the plot. She’s spunky in conversation and steadfast in her goal.
Perhaps what creates the greatest allure for Mattie, however, is her chemistry with Rooster (played by Jeff Bridges). Whether working together or arguing amongst themselves, Mattie and Rooster stay true to their novel counterparts. The result is cinematic brilliance.
Fare Thee Well Song from Inside Llewyn Davis
4. Llewyn Davis – Inside Llewyn Davis
Played by Oscar Isaac, this struggling folk artist is perhaps the most underappreciated character on the list. While most arcs involve growth and development with their respective characters, Llewyn for the most part remains stagnant. This mirrors his way of life.
As he traverses an ever-changing music industry in New York’s Greenwich Village, Llewyn refuses to adapt with the times. He views those that gear themselves more toward the mainstream as sellouts—artists willing to abandon their true form in order to increase record sales.
And it’s this dynamic that—once it finally reveals itself when Llewyn ends up in the same place which he started—defines Llewyn as a character. He’s so open to growth and development, yet he doesn’t change at all. And to top off the intrigue, his character traits allure the audience on their own. His vocal cords produce as much sarcastic vitriol as they do angelic folk tunes. And it’s this openness to change that makes his ultimate negligence so poetic.
El Duderino Scene from The Big Lebowski
3. Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski – The Big Lebowski
He bowls, he smokes a lot of weed, and that’s about it. A pretty laid-back guy, The Dude really only has to worry about paying rent and meeting his fellow ne’er-do-wells at the bowling alley. He doesn’t have any goals aside from that. At least, not at first. When someone defiles his rug, though, after mistaking him for a billionaire that owes them money—everyone has to pay.
This is perhaps the most iconic character the Coens have ever written. The movie has become such a cult classic that a religion has been formed in its honor: Dudeism. And while he may not be the most well-written of the bunch, people will be wearing robes and sunglasses while drinking White Russians for many Halloweens to come. Longevity speaks volumes for quality.
El Duderino Scene from The Big Lebowski
2. Marge Gunderson – Fargo
Seven performances from Coen Brothers movies have been nominated at the Oscars in their respective category. Only two of them won, and Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson in Fargo (1996) was the first. She’s one of the funniest people in their entire filmography. She’s also loyal, genial, and sharper than a woodchipper.
The town of Fargo would be lost without Marge. They all seem so largely incompetent that their irrational decisions would cause chaos in the streets. Then again, most Coen characters are incapable of rational decision-making. And to an extent, Marge is, too—the difference is that once she puts her mind to something, no one can deny her fortitude.
The Morning Sickness Scene in Fargo
1. Anton Chigurh – No Country for Old Men
Off the bat, it should be noted that this is one of the most lauded performances of the twenty-first century. Right up there with Heath Ledger’s Joker and Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2007), Javier Bardem summoned the same stone-cold nature as his character to kill his competition at all of the major award associations.
Based on a character by Cormac McCarthy, this psychopathic killer was specifically designed as death incarnate. You aren’t supposed to know anything about the character other than his obsession with killing. His background is practically untraceable—no one knows his middle name, his nationality, or who his family is.
Few people have so adeptly personified evil on screen. Acting aside, though—Anton would be a compelling character no matter the medium. It’s true in the original novel, and it would remain were there ever, say, a spinoff show. A comic book, maybe. His signature hairstyle, captive bolt stunner (which he used to kill his enemies, knock out deadbolts from doors, etc.) and coin of death would instill fear into audiences whether they’re reading about him, listening to him speak, or simply seeing his picture. Anton knows two things: how to inflict fear, and how to kill.
The Coin Toss Scene in No Country for Old Men
Agree With the List?
With one of the more decorated rosters of original characters under their belt, the Coens have provided film fans with some of the funniest and most offbeat personalities ever put to screen. Much of this list could change on any given day.
But among all of the greats, who is your favorite Coen Brothers character? Let me know in the comments, be sure to share the list on your social media platforms, and thanks so much for reading!
The beginning of a beautiful friendship
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