The Coen Brothers Were Never Better Than with Barry Sonnenfeld


Barry Sonnenfeld is known to tell the story of that day in Texas 25 years ago when he walked onto the set of Blood Simple—the Coen Brothers’ debut and his first feature film as a cinematographer—and couldn’t turn on the camera. Things seemed to work out OK over the next month and a half—and over the next seven years, in fact, when the trio’s work on Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing established each of them in careers that would fork dramatically in the decades to come.

The triptych is the highlight of MOMA’s latest installment of “Collaborations in the Collection,” an ongoing series that highlights film partnerships. Screening nine films, the program spotlights the Coens’ stock players (including John Turturro, Frances McDormand, and Steve Buscemi) and technicians. Few behind the camera, however, had an impact as deep as Sonnenfeld’s, whose presence can be felt even in the Coen films he didn’t shoot—from the wildly formalist Southwestern sketches undergirding the Roger Deakins–shot No Country for Old Men to the accentuated archetypes recurring over all of the brothers’ 13 films.

The native New Yorker met fellow NYU film-school alum Joel Coen at a party in 1982, when he and his brother Ethan had recently completed the script for Blood Simple. Sonnenfeld shot a mock trailer with them to attract investors for the $1.5 million feature. The film would be set in Texas—as likely a place as any to host a jealous husband’s passion killing, Joel later acknowledged in the film’s production notes, though its status as a right-to-work state meant cheaper labor on a non-union shoot.

The brothers’ Lone Star noir cultivated a searing new brand of peril, at once reticent and unhinged. Sonnenfeld used wide angles throughout, flattening his images to the point where every illicit embrace is an exclamation and a hit man’s shuffle is as loaded as his gun. Their 1987 follow-up, Raising Arizona, exploded that breadth in the service of a comic masterpiece: Ex-con H.I. McDunnough and his infertile ex-cop wife Ed kidnap one of a furniture magnate’s newborn quintuplets, only to find themselves besieged by a cluster of ne’er-do-wells who finally reinforce the couple’s doomed best intentions.

Each film has an infamous, wordless set piece at its heart, with Blood Simple‘s still gruesomeness giving way to Arizona‘s madcap kinesis. But Sonnenfeld’s camera—lurching over drunks, zooming over fountains, whirling through production designer Jane Musky’s vast interiors, moving constantly up until it could only (literally) plunge back to Earth—may ultimately have worn out the Coens, who settled three years later into the moody period patois of their ethnic gangster saga Miller’s Crossing. There, with their biggest budget and highest-profile ensemble to date, the Coen/Sonnenfeld brain trust inverted its Blood Simple formula: The double- and triple-crosses cascaded verbally this time around—the brothers’ own furious, wide-angle perspective on favorite themes like loyalty, ethics, and love crushed by crime now caught in Sonnenfeld’s shallow, silent focus.

A roundly unpopular opening-night selection of the 1990 New York Film Festival, Crossing plays better today as a long goodbye to both Sonnenfeld and the stylistic innovation that the Coens would start recycling as soon as 1991’s Barton Fink. That film’s obsession with era, class, and a flawed hero flailing out of his depths drew from each of their previous films, from Turturro’s jittery Jewish playwright Fink (an estranged cousin of Crossing‘s jittery Jewish mobster Bernie Bernbaum) to Arizona alum John Goodman’s gregarious fugitive, each character responsible for the other in ways the Coens never fully explain.

But where Sonnenfeld’s eye always emphasized the fantasia of that ambiguity, the Coens and current cinematographer Roger Deakins smothered it in silky ’40s textures (Barton Fink), sprawling snow drifts (Fargo), and noir monochrome (The Man Who Wasn’t There). No Country for Old Men brings them thematically full circle, while also invoking the Reagan-era anxiety from which those early classics emerged. Their Oscar winner, in fact, is no more a Cormac McCarthy adaptation than a Coen brothers remake—Blood Simple and Raising Arizona in prismatic, nihilist retrospect. With their conscience-stricken, lower-class Southwesterners losing ground fast to hunters of unknown origin, the films match right down to their drawling introductions and the onyx quality of their fake blood.

Sonnenfeld, for one, couldn’t stand the sight of the stuff; he can be heard retching in the background of Blood Simple‘s goriest interlude. It’s an uncanny metaphor for the Coen/Sonnenfeld Three: uneasy partners who created work so charged that even as their paths diverged—Sonnenfeld into franchise blockbusters and TV, the Coens into deadpan redundancy—they can’t help but provoke again after all these years.