With their 17th feature film, Hail, Caesar!, set to hit theaters this weekend, The Coen Brothers continue cranking out films with terrific central characters. Let's take a look now at the five best protagonists from a Coen Brothers movie.
For the sake of ease, I've limited this list strictly to characters The Coen Brothers themselves created, so no one from their adaptations like No Country for Old Men, True Grit, or The Ladykillers. Every other protagonist was eligible.
Just missed the cut
Ulysses Everett McGill, O Brother, Where are Thou
Ed Crane, The Man Who Wasn't There
Larry Gopnik, A Serious Man
5. Llewyn Davis, Inside Llewyn Davis
Protagonists don't get more prickly than Oscar Isaac's Llewyn Davis, the struggling folk singer who only wants success on his own terms. He's a difficult character to like, but one that you can't help but root for despite his many flaws and how frequently he gets in his own way. What makes him such a terrific protagonist, however, is that he's allowed to try and fail and still be inspirational for his refusal to compromise. He sings for the starving artist inside all of us, willing to starve than sacrifice his artistic integrity. Llewyn is every bit as problematic as the best characters in all of fiction, easily earning him a spot on this list.
4. H.I. McDunnough, Raising Arizona
There was a time when people looked forward to seeing Nicolas Cage in a movie because he was all but guaranteed to do something off-beat and wacky with his character. While it didn't always pay off, one of his best performances was as chronic loser and hopeless optimist H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona. If Pain & Gain left you feeling worn out and hollow, check out Raising Arizona to see a legitimately lovable convict like Hi, and you'll understand why filmmakers like Michael Bay continue to ape the Coen formula without fully understanding it. There was a time when Cage wasn't afraid to play a doofus, and Hi is one of his most sublime doofuses ever.
3. Barton Fink, Barton Fink
A more mature and world weary version of Llewyn Davis, Barton Fink is an idealistic playwright who is given the opportunity of a lifetime: to travel to Hollywood and work as a writer for a major movie studio. This loosely fictional film is about the loss of innocence and the way Hollywood is designed to squash creativity wherever it lurks, and John Turturro does career best work as the title character, a man slowly losing touch with reality as every illusion he has about Hollywood and mankind in general is destroyed. This remains my favorite Coen Brothers film, and Turturro's character is a huge part of the reason why.
2. Marge Gunderson, Fargo
The Coens haven't written a lot of great female protagonists, but anytime they go with Frances McDormand in that role, it's a can't-miss proposition. While this slot could have gone to her characters in Blood Simple or Burn After Reading, Marge Gunderson is the heart and soul of Fargo, a film that doesn't work as well without her down home Midwestern bluntness. Though she doesn't even enter the film until the film is nearly a third over, she instantly wins over the audience, who will have their hearts in their throat when she finally draws her gun during the film's climax. Perhaps one of the most underrated performances to ever win an Academy Award.
1. The Dude, The Big Lebowski
Was there any doubt that anoyne other than Jeff Bridges' Jeff Lebowski would top this list? Upon its initial release, The Big Lebowski was written off as a trifle following the deeply nuanced work the Coens did on Fargo. However, over the last eighteen years, the film's cult has grown and there's now an entire subculture of people devoted to living life like The Dude. The Big Lebowski is still a great film without Bridges' character, but it never would have achieved cult classic status without his studied and nuanced work as a complete and total slob. It's the best work of Bridges' career by a mile, and might just be the greatest character the Coens ever created.