Ethan and Joel Coen will have another movie to add their collective credit in Suburbicon (written by them, directed by George Clooney) this October and, if the past is any indication, it will be a wonderfully weird journey for audiences. Known for their quirky style, witty writing and unusual blending of genres that defies definition or replication, the Coen Brothers create movies that are entirely unique.
What sets them apart, without a doubt, are the personas they create, and their female characters most assuredly represent that. Strong, strange and iconic in their own right, one would be hard-pressed to pick the best. Still, let’s take a moment and give credit to five who — each in their own way — make the movies they’re in.
5. Edwin ‘Ed’ McDunnough
In Raising Arizona, Edwina “Ed,” the wife of ex-con H.I. “Hi” McDunnough, is a police officer of apparent high morals who refuses to let anyone tell her what’s right or what’s wrong. She’s also so desperate for a child that, with proclamations that the parents of newborn quintuplets “got more than they can handle,” insists Hi kidnap an infant to have as their own.
Despite this illegal act, Ed throws a fit concerning Hi’s prison buddies’ when they show up by flatly refusing that they could stay the night. She also leaves Hi in the dust when she catches him trying to rob the convenience store he’d gone in to get diapers from. The way in which Ed finds clear morality in pushing her husband to kidnap a baby while still growing furious with his other (lesser) illegal tendencies and behaviors both move the story forward and make her a fascinating study in dichotomy.
4. Marge Gunderson
Fargo became such an iconic film that it’s been turned into a hugely popular television show with three successful seasons already under its belt, and it’s hardly a stretch to suggest that’s due, in part, to the amazing protagonist in Police Chief Marge Gunderson. Wonderfully complex, she’s both compassionate and professional; a woman who doesn’t take any guff or have to lose her femininity to be strong. Bright, determined and working within the limits of the law, she’s able to weave together the bizarre strands of a kidnap-for-hire and ransom plot virtually on her own.
Many crime films involve the grizzled (often male) cop who goes to extremes to solve the case, but so few have the friendly, seven-month-pregnant police chief unblinkingly face down a killer as the man stuffs his partner in a wood-chipper. That fully realized, trope-shattering characterization is what makes both Marge and the film on whole stand out.
3. Maude Lebowski
Entire philosophies and religions have been created based around The Dude from The Big Lebowski, but one person who gave his chillness a run for his White Russian was Maude Lebowski (no relation). An eccentric artist first seen flying (nude) over The Dude as she paints, Maude is clinically blunt with a manner of speech best suited to a noir, and casualness that both suits and contrasts The Dude’s throughout the film.
Like many women in the noir genre, Maude is a strange mix of asset and liability; she fills in information gaps, leading The Dude to figure out what actually happened, but also uses him to her advantage. Where Maude becomes unique is in her using The Dude to have a child. Not only is such a desire unexpected from such a stern and direct character, but also from any noir-styled woman — most want to end the male protagonist’s life, not have him create a new one with her. Like other twists throughout this film, the “little Lebowski” is both surprising and endearing and also allows the film to end on a creatively optimistic note.
2. Penny McGill
Homer’s The Odyssey follows the adventures of Odysseus on his journey back to his forever faithful wife, Penelope. he Coen Brother’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? tells of the adventures Ulysses Everett McGill on his journey back to his wife, Penny. That’s about where the similarities end on the part of the ladies. Unlike her classical literature counterpart, Penny is more than ready to move on; while Everett’s imprisoned she divorces him, changes her last name, and tells their children he was hit and killed by a train. She also flatly refuses him upon his return with claims that her new fiancee is a better choice for her and her children because he has prospects and is “bonafide.”
While Odysseus’s Penelope put her suitors to a test in order to rid herself of them (and reveal her husband for who he was), Penny tests Everett instead, throwing him back into all manner of dangers more than once — including a near hanging, then drowning — in search for a ring she later admits to having lost track of. These differences from the character she’s based upon help Penny stand out and become her own woman. Both stories begin and end with a man’s journey back to his wife and, without Penny as a catalyst, Everett would still be on the chain-gang instead of the lead singer of the famous Soggy Bottom Boys.
1. Linda Litzki
At the end of Burn After Reading a CIA officer and his superior sit, baffled, wondering how things spun so completely out of control and what it was they did that caused it — which really sums up the theme of the film itself. The personification of that theme comes in the form of a strangely chipper woman named Linda Litzki who, upon stumbling across a disk containing the memoir of a disgraced CIA agent, decides to try and return it in exchange for money that she hopes to use for a bit of plastic surgery. The attempt goes spectacularly wrong, and soon Linda’s selling the disk to the Russians unknowingly causes a violent international incident that results in many around her killed. Like the madcap movie itself, it’s actually part of Linda’s unusual charm that she can happily bounce through the havoc she creates, only skimming the darkness of the events, until the CIA reveals all. It’s at this point she promptly requests they pay for her surgery in exchange for her silence because, in the end, she’s still not sure what the heck she did to cause all that chaos.
Which of these female characters do you think is the best of the Coen Brothers’ work?