8 things which tell you you are watching a Coen brothers’ film

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Thirty years ago, a small violent crime drama was released.
The film was Blood Simple and it was the first of the many twisted tales to come from the ingenious minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. Thanks to the likes of Fargo and The Big Lebowski today virtually everyone seen at least one Coen brothers’ film. But just in case you’re in any doubt, watch out for the following…

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1. Crime
Almost every Coen brothers’ film involves crime of some sort usually interspersed with some dark humour. Kidnapping is a particular favourite as in Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Raising Arizona.

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2. Frances McDormand is in it
Best known for her Oscar winning performance as the amiable pregnant police officer Marge Gunderson in Fargo, McDormand has been in five other Coen brothers films including Blood Simple and Burn After Reading. She is married to Joel Coen.

Frances McDormand In 'Fargo'

3. Witty quotable dialogue
“What’s the rumpus?” (Miller’s Crossing). “You know: for kids!” (The Hudsucker Proxy). “You’re entering a world of pain!” or “The Dude abides” (The Big Lebowski). “He was kind of funny looking” (Fargo). Nearly every Coen-directed film has been entirely written by the duo and features corkers like this.

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4. Steve Buscemi is in it
The Boardwalk Empire star appeared in five Coen brothers’ films in the Nineties.Bizarrely, he not only dies but his character’s body is mutilated in every one of these films.In Lebowski, for example, his character is cremated after dying. In Fargo, his character’s body is memorably fed into a wood chipper.

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5. Roads
Yes, we are aware most films have roads in them. However, in Coen films like Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men and Inside Llewyn Davis, roads play a major role in the story. There’s sometimes a fair bit of snow too. Watch out for it.

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6. John Goodman is in it
Goodman has first appeared as Hi’s convict friend in Raising Arizona but also cropped up as a horrendous old bore in Inside Llewyn Davis, as well as Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? John Turturro has also appeared in four of their films (for example as pervert and bowler Jesus Quintana in Lebowski and earlier played Barton Fink himself).

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7. Usually set in the past
Barely any of their films are set when the film was actually released. Lebowski was set during the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis, Fargo in the late eighties (who knows why?) True Grit is set in the 19th century, Barton Fink in the Forties and No Country For Old Men in 1980. You get the idea.

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8. They are weird
The most recurrent theme of the Coens’ films is their strangeness. Why is Fargo called Fargo when it is not even set there but in nearby Brainerd? Why did the Coens pretend it was based on a true story? Why is a batch of stolen money left undiscovered at the end? Why is the ending of No Country For Old Men so odd? Why did they base O Brother, Where Art Thou? on Homer’s Odyssey when neither Coen had apparently read it? Why is Lebowski set during the first Gulf War? Why is there a weird Roswell Incident bit in The Man Who Wasn’t There? Probably we will never know the answers. But the Coen brothers’ brilliance is not in question. Here’s to the next thirty years…

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The Wasp Factory: 30 years on

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This week sees the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Iain Bans’ controversial debut novel The Wasp Factory. It is a sad anniversary, in that for the first time Banks himself who died of cancer last year, will no longer be around to celebrate it.

In truth such was the tabloid furore surrounding the book in 1984 that Banks, then in his twenties, did well to ever escape the book’s long shadow. It remains perhaps his darkest book and one that I (perhaps wrongly) hesitate to recommend to readers who have never sampled Banks’ work before, even though it was the first one I actually ever read myself. That said, it is still quite mild next to some books which have appeared since (such as Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho). It is also still, alongside The Crow Road, one of Banks’ best and most famous works.

Banks was undeniably right to describe the book as a “dark comedy” though even though parts of the book (such as the reasons for his older brother’s breakdown) are deeply unpleasant. The main character Frank is undeniably deeply disturbed enjoying an isolated life with his retired ex-hippy dad, playing in a world of fantasy or fighting a giant bunny (a scene which actually appears to be based in the real world when activities around a rabbit warren get out of hand). But the wasp factory of the title isn’t a metaphor: it is a physical structure which Frank has built himself. And he is a killer. Grim though they are, Frank’s accounts of his murders are among the most memorable bits in the novel.

Throughout the book there are also subtle indications that something more is wrong with Frank. Unlike most teenage boys, he seems oddly repelled by women.

Thirty years on, The Wasp Factory remains hugely compelling from its odd unworldly opening to its very final line.