From the outset of their joint filmmaking career, Ethan and Joel Coen have given the institution of marriage no quarter. Their first produced script, Blood Simple, turns on a jealous husband’s plot to have his wayward wife and her lover murdered. Their second, Crimewave (co-written with director Sam Raimi), kicks off with a man ordering a hit on his business partner to protect his wife’s interests. And so on down the line to The Tragedy of Macbeth, Joel’s first solo outing and perhaps the ultimate example of a mutually destructive union in their filmography.
It hasn’t been all doom and ruin, though, as anybody who’s seen Fargo can attest. Unlike most of the married couples in their films, Marge and Norm Gunderson are thoughtful, supportive, and genuinely affectionate. When Marge, Brainerd’s police chief, is roused before dawn to take in the scene of a triple homicide, Norm insists on cooking her eggs. While she’s out, she thinks of getting him nightcrawlers, and when she arrives at the station with them in hand, he’s brought her lunch from Arby’s. No wonder Marge is such an avid booster of Norm’s wildlife painting and just as invested in his career as he is.
In comparison, the marriage of Jerry and Jean Lundegaard has been less advantageous. For starters, her wealthy father Wade Gustafson doesn’t hide his disdain for his son-in-law, which is well-founded since Jerry has racked up sizable debts and hires two criminals to kidnap Jean so he can collect the ransom from Wade and skim what he needs off the top. That Jerry would consider putting Jean in such a spot starkly illustrates how little concern he has for her, in spite of his stated desire to provide for her and their son. (A similar dynamic is at work in No Country for Old Men since Llewelyn Moss puts his wife Carla Jean in danger by keeping the drug money he stumbles onto while hunting.) As the situation devolves – and Marge follows the trail that leads straight to him – Jerry learns any control he thought he had over it was always illusory.
Kidnapping is also central to the Coens’ first crime comedy, although in Raising Arizona the target is a baby taken by a couple unable to have one of their own. Eager to start a family, reformed robber H.I. McDunnough and police officer Ed are contented newlyweds until they receive the news that she can’t get pregnant. This spurs them to relieve Nathan and Florence Arizona of one of their newborn quintuplets after Nathan quips to the papers that they have “more than they can handle,” resulting in a distraught Florence leaving with the other four. H.I. and Ed’s misadventure puts a similar strain on their marriage and places them in conflict with other interested parties, including a bounty hunter, two of H.I.’s former cellmates, and his foreman Glen and his baby-crazy wife Dot.
In addition to kidnapping, which also crops up in The Big Lebowski (although in that case the “victim” – Bunny Lebowski, trophy wife of the title character – turns out to be no such thing), another criminal enterprise that divides married couples in the Coens’ oeuvre is the hiring of freelance killers. In Blood Simple, it’s Loren Visser, a seedy private detective paid by bar owner Julian Marty to tail his wife Abby because he suspects her of sleeping around. When Visser comes back with proof – and the other man turns out to be one of his bartenders – Marty wants both taken care of, but Visser figures he can kill one for the price of two and let somebody else take the fall.
Crimewave, on the other hand, has two killers for the price of one and ends with hapless security system installer Vic Ajax getting blamed for their dirty work. Or rather it begins there, since the film plays out in flashback while Vic is dragged from his cell to the chair where he is to be electrocuted, also the fate of hapless barber Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There. While Ed’s marriage to Doris, accountant for Nirdlinger’s department store, is stable enough, there’s no passion in it, and Ed correctly surmises Doris is two-timing him with her boss, Big Dave Brewster, who has similarly married (to the spacy Ann) into his profession. It isn’t out of malice, then, or a sense of moral justification that Ed blackmails Dave to finance a business opportunity that drops into his lap. That this scheme doesn’t go to plan is par for the course.
While the prospect of divorce is first raised in Raising Arizona, when H.I. and Ed contemplate splitting up as they’re reuniting Nathan Jr. with Nathan Sr., it comes to the fore in a number of their later films. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Ulysses Everett McGill and two fellow convicts escape their chain gang so he can attempt a reconciliation with his ex-wife Penny, who is on the verge of remarrying. And Intolerable Cruelty is almost entirely about the subject, since it’s centered on divorce attorney Miles Massey, creator of the legendary Massey Prenup (which “has never been penetrated”) and a smooth talker who seems to draw the guilty parties in cases involving adultery. This is certainly true of the proceedings between Rex and Marilyn Rexroth, since the former hires Miles after a private detective nails his ass, a potentially awkward situation since Miles is instantly smitten with the opposition. What follows is a flurry of matrimonial activity as Marilyn loses her case, weds a soap opera actor posing as a Texas oil baron, and uses this as leverage to reel Miles in, intending to clean him out the way he prevented her from cleaning Rex out.
Adultery and divorce proceedings likewise run rampant in Burn After Reading and A Serious Man. In the former, disgraced CIA analyst Osborne Cox is taken to the cleaners by his wife Katie, who is carrying on an affair with finicky Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer. Meanwhile, Harry finds he’s being surveilled by the law firm retained by his wife Sandy, a children’s book author carrying on a torrid affair of her own. As for A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik, he’s blindsided by his wife Judith’s request for a divorce so she can remarry touchy-feely widower Sy Abelman. This is but one of many ways he’s beset, though, as every aspect of Larry’s life spirals out of his control in the weeks leading up to his son’s bar mitzvah.
All this evidence to the contrary, the Gundersons aren’t the only well-adjusted man and wife in the Coenverse, with the lawman/spouse relationship of Ed Tom and Loretta Bell in No Country providing the closest parallel. Folkies Mitch and Lillian Gorfein are happy to open their home to the prickly title character in Inside Llewyn Davis, and the marriage of James and Mary Donovan in Bridge of Spies (directed by Steven Spielberg) is as rock-solid as they come. The same goes for studio fixer extraordinaire Eddie Mannix and his wife in Hail, Caesar! As supportive as can be, Mrs. Mannix follows in the footsteps of Coen spouses going back to Johnny Caspar’s Italian wife in Miller’s Crossing, who doesn’t speak a word of English, and Sidney Mussburger’s better half in The Hudsucker Proxy, who also doesn’t get a name. When Norville Barnes tells him he has a “charming wife,” Sidney’s curt response is “So they tell me.” In a Coen Brothers film, sometimes that’s the best you can ask for.