Answer by Jon Ferreira:
Who’s Better: the Coen Brothers or Tarantino?
The Coen Brothers, without question…
Tarantino’s Distinct Style & Strengths
Tarantino has a definite style, there can be no question. But I would argue his style is predominantly referential, derivative, and securely rooted in films of the ’70s. Tarantino is more straightforward in his filmmaking, paying direct tribute to the ’60s and ’70s directors (and genres) that formed and shaped him as a young director. His films all seen to have a neo-’70s Disco era blaxploitation film motif, with period music, period costuming, and a production quality that has that gritty ’70s feel. He liberally uses music, slow-motion, and stylized dramatic action and the kind of movie violence found in the Dirty Harry films to tell the sordid tales of grungy and morally questionable characters. His dialogue is highly stylized (who talks like that? Royale with Cheese…) and quite clever. Tarantino has the power to wow you with much more style than substance. You’ll have a good ride, but you might be left hungry afterwards. In the last decade, Tarantino has begun to direct revisionist revenge dramas, set in past historical periods, but featuring characters who are still unmistakably Tarantno creations. This postmodern displacement allows traditionally victimized and oppressed cultures to exact revenge on their oppressors. The two films are Inglorious Basterds, which tells the tale of an elite Jewish squad of commandos who attempt to assassinate Hitler during World War II. Django Unchained tells the story of a wrathful slave who teams up with a German mercenary to kill as many slaveholders and masters as they can. Both are ultraviolet and quite stylized. Both are quite good.
The Unparalleled Coen Artistry
On the other hand, the Coen Brothers have an unrivaled and penetrating style, that has undoubtedly been influenced by the films of Chaplin/Keaton, film noir, 1930s screwball comedy, avant-garde theatre (Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Ionesco), 1950s TV Comedy (Sid Caesar, Jack Benny), Blake Edwards, The Marx Brothers, etc. The Coen Brothers have many influences, and pay several subtle homages, but there’s nothing derivative about their work: it is a unique and unmistakable vision. The Coen Brothers are straight up auteurs, and devastatingly effective storytellers.
Strange Visions: The Off Kilter World of the Coen’s
Their movies are vast landscapes of peculiarity, filled with odd and eccentric characters who don’t belong anywhere else but in their surreal landscape. There is a vague feeling of dread. Like an existential omelet, which everyone seems to be eating. Dialogue is sparse, but so incredibly effective. Characters speak with their own distinct voices, not sexy witticisms made up by the director and screenwriter, as is the case with Tarantino. In a Tarantino film, you get the vague sense that every character has the voice of Tarantino himself, and all speak using a sort of smart and sarcastic, referential dialogue. Conversely, the Coen Brothers’ dialogue is unquestionably motivated by the character, is unique to their peculiar personalities, and no one else in the film could speak as they do.
Coen films often involve a crazy sequence of events, predicated upon mistaken identity, duplicity, deception, greed, revenge, or just plain, good natured agreeability (The Dude abides…). Perhaps no other filmmaker besides Wes Anderson, creates a canvas of such end of the road Godot-like limbos (Fargo, No Country for Old Men, ’70s era bowling alley), and populates it with such colorful characters (The Dude, Jesus, Anton Chigurh, Jerry Lundegaard, Tom Reagan, Barton Fink, Pete Hogwallop).
Coen Brothers films are so expertly paced. They never hurry perfection, but know how to methodically unravel a riddle, and let the audience come along with them for the ride. The locations are evocative, the accents pitch perfect, the costumes indicative of time and character, the music so deliciously underscoring the film (think of that Fargo musical motif, as Fran makes the long drive down that highway for the umpteenth time. The music swells.). And think of the acting. People have won a handful of Oscars for this work. These characters are so fastidiously drawn, you can’t even tell they’re acting. Their actions and words are completely and utterly motivated by character.
The world of the Coen Brothers is a quirky, dimly lit waiting room to who knows where? The kind of place where the bathrooms have those awful loops of fabric you’re expected to pull down, and wipe your hands where everyone has that’s come before you. The place is filled with a disproportionately high number of weird and eccentric characters. It’s like Darwin’s waiting room in most Coen films. Yet somehow, it’s easy to fall in love with these odd characters (who didn’t shed a tear when Donny died?)
That 70s Show
Tarantino is an incredibly gifted filmmaker, who makes unforgettable films filled with really ‘cool’ people who always say the most edgy and clever things. The action is intense and the sex appeal of every character is palpable. He tells a great story, and transports you to a time that feels unmistakably ’70s, yet undoubtedly modern and fresh. Tarantino is one of our most visionary directors, and expertly overwhelms us with style. Often though, this comes at the expense of substance.
Making the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange
The Coen Brothers are on an entirely different level as filmmakers. These are artists, who create entirely cohesively conceived worlds that look so familiar, yet are so oddball, and a place where everyone is that crazy uncle we all have. The films are always darkly comic, and exist in a haze of existential malaise. This is art. These are auteurs. There is no mistaking a Picasso. The Coen Brothers have the bizarre and surreal vision of directors Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, but their films often have well constructed plots, clever sequences, and sharp and witty dialogue. Unlike the darker and more avant garde work of Lynch or Gilliam, the Coen Brothers are firmly rooted in their ’30s screwball comedy roots, in the style of classic directors like Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks. Theirs is a an unparalleled vision, like no other in Hollywood. Their films are quirky and silly, while also dark and menacing. The Coen Brothers have produced and directed some of the greatest films in the modern era. Tarantino is great, but the Coen’s are two of the greatest!