Coen brothers prove two heads are better than one

HOLLYWOOD (AFP) — Regarded as two of the most innovative directors in the world, Joel and Ethan Coen have been rolling back the boundaries of movie-making for nearly three decades.

Since exploding onto the scene in 1984 with their noir thriller "Blood Simple," the Coens have reeled off a dozen films each notable for their distinctive quirky humor or macabre themes.

The commercial and critical success of "No Country for Old Men," which earned the brothers the best director Oscar here Sunday, confirmed their status among the leading filmmakers of their generation.

A dark meditation on violence and human mortality shot through with black humor and striking cinematography, "No Country" is a classic example of the Coen brothers' genre.

The siblings are known as the "two-headed director" within the movie world for their seamless ability to work alongside each other.

Josh Brolin, one of the stars of "No Country," jokingly described the Coens as "freaky little people who made a freaky little movie" as the film collected top prize at the Screen Actors Guild Awards earlier this month.

Working with the two brothers is a unique experience, Brolin said in a recent interview. "It's kind of strange," he said.

"They're like one guy with two heads, but they have an understanding of their own sensibilities that allow them to do what they do."

Joel, 53, and Ethan, 50, grew up in St Louis Park, Minnesota as the children of college professors and had an interest in film from an early age, remaking movies seen on television with a Super-8 camera.

After graduating at Simon's Rock College of Bard in Massachusetts, Joel Coen spent four years studying film at New York University while Ethan attended Princeton where he graduated in philosophy in 1979.

Joel Coen's early experience involved working as an assistant editor on Sam Raimi's 1981 film "The Evil Dead" and it was another three years before the two brothers arrived with "Blood Simple," which they wrote and directed.

Intended as a tribute to the fiction of crime writer James M. Cain, the film about a bar owner who hires a hitman to kill his wife and her lover contains themes that have become Coen brothers hallmarks.

The film is notable for the appearance of Frances McDormand, who would later marry Joel before appearing in several of their films.

The Coens followed up "Blood Simple" with their screwball 1987 comedy "Raising Arizona," starring Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter as a married couple who steal a baby to raise as their own.

The start of the next decade saw the Coens pay homage to gangster films with the 1990 film "Miller's Crossing," featuring a youthful Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney and John Turturro.

Two memorable comedies -- "Barton Fink" and "The Hudsucker Proxy" -- came next before arguably the Coens' best-known film, "Fargo," in 1996.

The movie, about a bungling car salesman (William H. Macy) who sets up a bogus kidnap plot involving his wife with disastrous consequences, earned two Oscars: best actress for McDormand and original screenplay for the Coens.

A dramatic change of tone was to follow with 1998's "The Big Lebowski," a surreal comedy about an ageing Californian slacker (Jeff Bridges) who is mistaken for a millionaire with hilarious consequences.

Another comedy, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" starring George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as three convicts on the run in 1930s Mississippi came in 2000. The film, a loose interpretation of Homer's "The Odyssey" was nominated for two Oscars.

The Coens returned to neo-noir in their next film, "The Man Who Wasn't There," a black-and-white mystery about a taciturn, cuckolded barber (Billy Bob Thornton) who ends up embroiled in a murder investigation.

A second collaboration with George Clooney came in 2003's offbeat comedy "Intolerable Cruelty," with Clooney playing a slippery divorce lawyer dueling against an avaricious Catherine Zeta-Jones.

A remake of the classic Ealing comedy "The Ladykillers," starring Tom Hanks, came in 2004 before "No Country for Old Men."