There can be no doubt that brothers Joel and Ethan Coen are perhaps two of the most original, visionary filmmakers working today. In fact, when they have run their course, their filmography will no doubt stand out as one of the greatest in American film history. If there is any credence to the auteur theory, then certainly they contribute to it. Their films, though never espousing any particular theology, are deeply theological and spiritual. In her book, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, Cathleen Falsani attempts to unpack some of the deeper meanings and themes behind these enigmatic films.
One might initially find it difficult to think of “the gospel” and the Coen brothers in the same sentence. After all, they are Jewish. However, Falsani here employs a broader understanding of gospel, not necessarily the particular gospel of Jesus Christ, but the more universal notions of good news or spiritual truths. Falsani regards the Coen brothers as secular theologians, even as she recognizes that they would most likely disagree with her on this point. Nevertheless, she writes, “[…The] Coens have boldly engaged serious existential questions with darkly intelligent humor. […] Each of their fourteen feature-length films is marked by theological, philosophical, and mythological touchstones that enrich even the slapstickiest moments” (16). Unlike many theologians, the Coen brothers are content to just ask the questions, dangerous though they may be, without providing answers, thus leaving “the door to interpretation (spiritual, artistic, stylistic, and otherwise) wide open” (17).
After a brief introduction, Falsani moves to the heart of the text, an exegesis of all 14 feature-length Coen brothers films. In each case, the chapters are divided into three sections, “The Forest,” “The Trees,” and “The Moral of the Story…”. In “The Forest,” the briefest of the sections, she gives a broad (couple of sentences) overview of the plot and theme of the particular film. In “The Trees,” the longest of the sections, Falsani gives an extremely detailed account of the action and characters in each film, lifting out particularly important aspects of each that enforce the larger theme. In “The Moral of the Story…,” as you might expect, she gives a brief spiritual, theological reflection on just what it all might mean in the end.
One thing is perfectly clear: Falsani loves Coen brothers films. Her summaries of the films are all-encompassing, and she doesn’t miss a beat. Any fan of these films will thoroughly enjoy re-living these cinematic experiences yet again. Occasionally, her assessment of a character or a particular plot point opens up the door to a potentially engaging theological conversation. Unfortunately, and this is my main problem with Falsani’s book, is that she never follows up on these potential conversations to any great degree, moving on quickly with her summaries of the plots. By the time she concluded these significant overviews, I was dying for some deeper exegesis, yet when she arrived at “The Moral of the Story…,” it was often far too brief, and dare I say trite, to do justice to the films that certainly must inspire deeper theological interpretation.
Falsani gives the most attention to Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998), certainly two of their best and most famous films, and what appear to be her favorites as well. Of Fargo, she writes, it is “perhaps the finest example of a Judeo-Christian morality play in all of American cinema” (95). She offers a great assessment of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and her ability to face incomprehensible evil without being corrupted by it. Falsani writes, “In a Wittgensteinian way, Marge, who is unfailingly good, cannot comprehend such unrestrained evil” (104). There is a hint that Falsani knows more than what she is willing to let on, theologically and scholarly speaking, however she doesn’t flesh that out in the rest of the text. Referencing Wittgenstein here appears to be more theological name-dropping than an effort to enter into a deeper analysis of the film. For Fargo, she argues that “The Moral of the Story…” is that “love wins.” This is a bold claim, with which I deeply agree, but it almost sounds and plays too easy against the blood-stained snow at the foot of a wood chipper.
In the end, I found the above dissonance to be characteristic of most chapters in The Dude Abides. There is a great build-up of anticipation and potential followed by un-fulfilling spiritual reflection. Falsani’s summaries of each film, however, will no doubt please and entertain even the most die-hard Coen brothers fans and just might make some new ones as well. The book also benefits from some fabulous illustrations by Erik Rose that introduce each chapter (see two examples below).
You can purchase The Dude Abides and all 14 Coen brothers films at the Pop Theology Shop.