The Art of the Coen Brothers: Movie Poster Reviews (1984-2000)
For whatever it's worth, I'm proud to say that I've been a fan of the Coen brothers since the beginning. I wasn't quite there when they made "Crimewave" with Sam Raimi, but I was definitely there for "Blood Simple". When I saw "Blood Simple", I knew I was watching something special. Things only got better with "Raising Arizona" and by the time I saw "Miller's Crossing", I was completely hooked. "Miller's Crossing" remains my favorite film of all-time.
Looking back over their posters, I'm reminded of good times, though I'm not as impressed with the visuals in the movie posters and there seems to be an overall goal in their posters to avoid visual hyperbole. Overall, the movie posters featuring Coen brothers movies don't do justice to the films they advertise.
Blood Simple - 1984
My recollection of seeing this poster the first time was that the quotes were very impressive. Not knowing much about the filmmakers, it's clear that quite a number of people thought this was a good film, so in that respect, the poster achieves quite a lot. If nobody knows who you are, then you better convince them your movie is good and just using an image is unlikely to pull that off, so although this poster isn't that interesting, it serves its purpose.
That being said, the image that is used conveys some interest. There are a fair number of details: a man and a woman in an embrace, a gun, and a dropped purse. The phrase "Breaking Up is Hard to Do" doesn't seem to add much unless you know something about the movie. The fact that the shoes are red relates to the word "blood" in the title, of course, but is also a signal for danger, indicating that the man's proximity to the woman may spell trouble. There's not a lot there, but enough to convey a sense about the movie. Grade: C
Raising Arizona - 1987
For such a great movie, this poster is absolutely awful. Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage weren't a-listers at the time, but they were pretty big stars. If nothing else, their names visible on the poster might have been a good idea.
The poster itself is just dull. Too much white space. And frankly, the baby in the lawn chair is too gimmicky. I guess you get a sense of the screwball nature of the comedy, but the image is meaningless. Of course, how to you promote a movie like "Raising Arizona" in a poster? I don't know the answer to that question, but there's no way this poster helped anything. Grade: D
Miller's Crossing - 1990
Anytime you have a quote on a poster that compares your film to "The Godfather" you kind of have to go with that. I mean, seriously, if you're a filmmaker or even some marketing schlub, how do you pass that up? Answer: you don't. That being said, to me that quote is a bit misleading in that the stylized gangsterism of "Miller's Crossing" doesn't have that much to do with the authenticity of Coppola's film.
However, I love the image used in the poster. If you're a fan of this movie, then this poster kind of speaks to you since it shows the most important scene in the movie, the one upon which most of the plot hinges and the one that changes the course of the story. So just from a filmmaker's standpoint, you're not giving anything away by showing it, but you are signalling to the audience members savvy enough to remember the poster, that they're watching a very critical scene. Grade: B
Barton Fink - 1991
For the longest time, many people referred to "Barton Fink" as the Coen brothers best film. I totally disagree. It was certainly their most artsy and their least accessible. Lack of accessibility is always a reason for somebody to announce that something is great because they understand it and nobody else does. In fact, "Barton Fink" is one of the few Coen brothers movies I have little interest in seeing again.
This film won the Palm D'or at Cannes. The caption above the title reads: "There's only one thing stranger than what's going on in his head. What's going on outside." Neither one of those things really wants to make me go see this film, though I suppose the Palm is a good thing to put on a poster. That leaves us with the image of John Turturro with the shadow of a mosquito on his forehead, which means that he's behind glass. I suppose that creates some question, but it doesn't exactly scream "Come see me!" This poster seems aimed primarily at those familiar with the Coen brothers and with Turturro, who had appeared in "Miller's Crossing". Grade: C
The Hudsucker Proxy - 1994
The film is like the diametric opposite of "Barton Fink" - an accessible, goofy story of the rise of a doofus in the corporate business world. The caption above Tim Robbins' head reads: "They took him for a fall guy. But he threw him for a hoop." Below the title is reads "A Comedy of Invention". Again, I think, this is a poster that didn't do the film any favors. A guy holding a hula hoop doesn't exactly create a giant reason to go see a film. Furthermore, the colors in the poster are just abysmal - grays and blues and whites. It's kind of like some of those hospitals painted the color of death before hospital administrators realized that a little color might cheer people up during what was likely a very stressful time. I don't know how many filmmakers have something to do with the creation of a film's poster, but it's clear the Coens do not and the people who made their posters didn't have the slightest clue how to market their films. Grade: D
Fargo - 1996
This is the first semi-great film poster for a Coen brothers movie, so perhaps it's interesting that this was also their first commercial success. That the poster looks like a quilt sets the perfect tone for a movie with a kind of hometown, Minnesota feel. That the quilt is decorated with a bloddied corpse and an upside-down police car provides the perfect contrast with the quilt and reflects almost perfectly one of the things that makes the movie so good: that downhome, aw shucks quality of the characters contrasted with the brutality of the crime that forms the focal point of the story.
I see the words "a homespun murder story" as overkill, but I suppose some things need to be spelled out. The combination of the quilt-like poster and the image at its center tells the viewer that there's a certain tone to the film that wouldn't be conveyed if it were just some photograph. That's a small quibble though. Grade: A-
The Big Lebowski - 1998
Again, we go back to marketing people who've lost their way. Here we have one of the Coen brothers greatest movies and a generally terrible poster. At least it's an interesting, somewhat head-scratching image I suppose. Presumably you can assume the movie has something to do with bowling. It's just perplexing that of all the things to sort of capture in the movie, the poster chooses Lebowski's weird dream. Just odd. The phrase "Times like these call for a Big Lebowski" is so far from making any sense as an advertising hook I don't even know what to say. Really, the most useful thing about the poster is that they put "From the Creators of "Fargo" at the bottom. Sure, it's a poster that one appreciates after having seen the film, but what could it have possibly done for anyone before the film? Grade: D
O Brother, Where Art Thou? - 2000
I'll say this about this poster as compared to all the previous ones: at least somebody started to work with some color. Though, like the previous posters, the color palette isn't exactly broad, it's at least a bit livlier.
The only thing we really get from looking at this poster is that it's about a chain gang and they're on the run. For whatever reason, this poster resembles "Barton Fink" in that we're looking at these expressions wondering what's going on. I'm not sure somebody's face looking off in the distance is the greatest thematic idea for a poster. Then again, if it's George Clooney's face, it's not an absolutely awful idea, I suppose.
The best thing about the poster is the way the visual is broken up, forcing one's eye down, past the title, to the image of the men running away. Still, overall this poster continued a trend for the Coen brothers that their marketing people didn't seem to be putting much effort into things. Grade: C
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