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Chris Willis

Daniel Anderson

ENGL 128

19 November 2008

                Coen Brothers’ Unrelenting Use of Repetition and In Medias Res

       The Coen brothers are well-known in the movie industry for their unique styles and wide

variety of films. They have dabbled in several genres that run the gamut from comedy (The Big

Lebowski) to action thrillers (No Country for Old Men). The Coen brothers’ styles can be seen in

two of their most famous works No Country for Old Men and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. In

these movies two styles they use in particular can be seen: repetition and in medias res.

Repetition, whether auditory or visual, help the viewer gain insights into the characters within

the movies. The Coen brothers also have a knack for starting a movie in what seems to be the

climax of another movie, or in medias res. The use of repetition and in medias res allow the

viewer to pick up information piece by piece to build a better picture of the character; a picture

that can not be put together simply with descriptive dialogues or narratives.

       The Coen brothers use repetition in several instances in the film O Brother, Where Art

Thou? The most notable use of repetition is the film’s main song “Man of Constant Sorrow.” On

the exterior, the song seems to be one that reflects Everett’s struggles. However, this song is

heard four times. Clearly, the Coen brothers wanted the audience to remember it. Reverting back

to the song in several instances seems to be indicating that throughout the journey that the three

main characters have embarked on, they are still men of constant sorrow. The song hints at the

inevitability, or foreshadowing, of constant sorrow. In essence, it seems that the Coen brothers

are making a deeper point; they will continue to be men of constant sorrow until they finally put
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their priorities in the correct order. The events that occur right before the song is played each

time are all scenes that seduce the travelers into making poor decisions. However, at the end of

the film, they seem to have finally found what they were looking for. The audience is shown that

to avoid their constant sorrows, the travelers need perseverance and strong will to avoid those

tempting situations and focus only on the important things in life. The song is a constant

reminder of their shortcomings and at the end of the film it shows the audience how they have

grown as characters.

       A subtler repetition is the constant reference to the pomade, Dapper Dan, which Everett is

constantly using and searching for. To most viewers, it seems as if he just loves that particular

pomade, but why did the Coen brothers make it such a vital part to Everett’s character? It’s

possible that we are finding an insight into how Everett thinks. Pomade is a hair styling product

that makes the hair look slick and shiny. In one scene he makes a very big deal about a

convenience store not carrying his favorite pomade – “I’m a Dapper Dan man!” Dapper Dan is

what he believes makes him look dapper and smart. Throughout the movie, Everett has a

somewhat arrogant attitude. He is constantly using his own logic to confidently explain events

that are occurring around the three main characters. The audience is now able to see that this is

where Everett believes some of his power and leadership is originating. Without Dapper Dan to

make him look sophisticated, how will anyone listen to him?

       The Coen brothers also used visual repetitions. The best use of this is in No Country for

Old Men. Three scenes in particular were strikingly similar and for obvious reasons. In the

beginning of the movie we see Moss and his wife sitting on the couch in their home. When

Chigurh is in search of Moss later on in the movie, we see him on the same sofa.
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Once again, the similarities are subtle, but upon closer inspection, one can easily see that this

repetition touches on some of the hidden meanings in the movie. While the motives of the two

characters differ greatly, the repetition of scenes poses an interesting question: Are the two men

that different? They both are inherently concerned with money, as is most of society. However,

they both were well within their rights to bail out on their respective situations; Moss could have

turned the money into Sheriff Bell or Chigurh could have simply not taken the job to search for

the money. They are also similar in another respect. In going along with the ideology of Chigurh,

the men are merely products of fate. From the day they were born, their destinies were already

planned out. As far as Chigurh is concerned, they are all pawns in the game of life and they do
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not have control over what happens. So, in these two separate scenes, there are two men on the

same couch in the same house only at different points in time. In the same scene with Chigurh,

the Coen brothers have him look into the television to see his reflection. And here, while

repetition is connecting Chigurh and Moss together, the Coen brothers extend the connection to

the other main character, Sheriff Bell. And, in Coen-like fashion, only a few scenes later we see

Sheriff Bell looking into the same television and peering at his reflection. Here, the alignment of

these two characters is brought to the forefront. Once again, the Coen brothers seem to suggest
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that they share similarities. So, these three men are products of fate and are there in search of

something. Sheriff Bell is in search of Chigurh and Moss, Chigurh is in search of Moss and the

money, and Moss is in search of freedom. These instances of repetition present the three

characters in a different light for the audience. It almost binds them together in a way by putting

them in similar scenes. The audience is always in search of an antagonist and a protagonist in

any film, and in this one it is no different. But, when the audience sees these scenes, it becomes

less clear as to who exactly the protagonist and antagonist are. If a traditional style would have

been used, Chigurh would have been the antagonist while Moss and Sheriff Bell would have

been the protagonist, but this isn’t the case. Chigurh, while clearly inflicting harm on several

people, has plenty of interesting dialogues that reveal how he merely operates on fate – it is out

of his hands. In many scenes he initiates a coin toss to let fate decide if the person should be

killed or not. According to him, he “got here the same way the coin did.” It almost makes the

audience empathize with him; in essence, he is not the one that makes the decision to kill people

- it is his predetermined fate. At this point in the movie, the audience does not know what part

each of the characters has in the movie. Ergo, they are more are less the same types of characters

– three men that are simply pawns in the game of fate. The repetitive dialogues and visuals

throughout these films provide insights into the character’s minds that the audience is almost

required to piece together for themselves.

       The Coen brothers also use a technique commonly referred to as in medias res. In the

more traditional style of film-making, the film slowly builds on the characters and events as they

happen. In these films the events seem to have already been built without the audience’s

knowledge. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? the story begins with three members of a chain gang

escaping. How, exactly, did they get away without the guards seeing them? How do they know
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each other? What crimes did they commit? Why are they in a chain gang? The audience is asking

themselves these questions from the very beginning. And, the Coen brothers make sure not to

include any predetermined feelings about the characters. It is certainly an interesting way to start

the movie, for instead of starting from a beginning and picking up on information

chronologically, the audience is left to interpret and pick up clues piece by piece.

       This technique is even more apparent in No Country for Old Men. The audience is

literally dropped into the middle of what seems to be the climax of a murder mystery. This

technique, although very peculiar, does present an interesting idea – maybe there is more to the

film than what seems to be an obvious, standard plot. When critically analyzed, the film doesn’t

seem to have that much of a plot – yes, Chigurh is trying to find and presumably kill Moss and

get the money, but why? What sequence of events led Chigurh to become involved in the first

place? The plot is never fully revealed, but that’s how the Coen brothers wanted to present it.

Clearly, if key plot points are left out, there must be a reason. The reason is to make the audience

look deeper into the characters. The movie is not concerned with why certain events are

happening and a resolution to those events, but who the events are happening to. The movie

lacks a desirable ending in that the Coen brothers provide no solution to the events in the movie.

While Moss is killed in the movie, the audience is still left wondering what will become of

Chigurh and Sheriff Bell. Not having a conclusive ending, yet again, has the audience

questioning the characters. A lot of “what if’s” are thrown in the air. What if Chigurh goes back

and kills Sheriff Bell or what if Sheriff Bell finds Chigurh? The Coen brothers want these

questions to be asked so it the audience is forced to make their own decisions about the

characters. The Coen brothers are refusing to hold anyone’s hand throughout this movie – it’s

entirely up to the audience to make their own interpretations.
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       Throughout their directing careers, the Coen brothers have certainly gone against the

grain as far as traditional directing techniques are concerned. Their particular styles force the

audience to change the ways in which they watch films. The directors leave room for the

audience to formulate its own opinions about the characters. For Everett, his Dapper Dan shows

his concern for traditional ideas and his wanting to appear dapper, neat, trim, slick, and above all,

to be the backbone of rational thinking. The repetition of scenes in No Country for Old Men

binds the characters together in a similar light. It begs the answer to the question “how different

are these men, really?” Starting in what seems to be the middle of the story, or in medias res, is

also an intriguing technique. Purposely leaving out information in the beginning keeps the

audience searching for clues, but not through events that are laid out chronologically. The

audience must delve further into the characters’ minds to find out information and decide, for

themselves, what the characters’ actions are really representing. The Coen brothers’ techniques

of repetition and in medias res entice the audience to look deeper into the films. Without the use

of these styles, the Coen brothers would simply be just another set of traditional directors.

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