To see this trend, it really does help to see a bunch of their films in a row (or, like me and my class, all of them)
Here's the paper! Oh, and keep in mind that I wrote this in an hour and I am not at all saying I did a great job on it!
That American Feeling
The Coens’ films have long been hailed for their eccentricity, their refusal to bow to the whims of those footing the bill, and their over-the-top, bloody plots. Sounds a bit like a country I once knew. A quintessentially American feeling permeates the Coen library. Through a combination of bleak landscapes that become characters, plastic materials that accentuate the satirical, and their ability to both ridicule and praise the American Dream, the Coens create an America that is more raw and honest then mainstream Hollywood films.
America is one of the few countries in the world that can look at the nature of anything from snowy-peaked mountains to rain forests to deserts and claim ownership. The Coens use this to give their films a distinct feeling. Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men, with their stark rolling deserts and Fargo with its mimicking tundra; Blood Simple and O Brother, Where Art Thou? with their farmlands and forests; even the skylines of Hudsucker Proxy and the suburban monotony of The Man Who Wasn't There. Dialog scenes don't always hide indoors (with the notable exception of Intolerable Cruelty), and action isn't relegated to jumping over empty parking ramps. The use of desolate landscapes is often indicative of the characters’ situations, as in Fargo, or their personalities, as in No Country, where the harsh, unforgiving Texas desert mirrors the cold nature of Chigurh. In this way, the Coens utilize all the visual advantages that come with setting a film on American soil.
Plastic material is used as everything from McGuffin to social commentary in the Coens’ films. One of the reasons Blood Simple was such a hit with cineastes was the way they used conventional cinematic wisdom. In one piece of plastic material, a lighter left on a table that had no real pay off, they were able to utilize the rule of three and the McGuffin, not to mention the way in which it gave us more insight into one of the main characters. In Burn After Reading, plastic material is used throughout as a social commentary about the Bush administration. For instance, when Clooney and Swinton are lying in bed discussing their affair and possibly leaving their spouses, the bedding is made of American flags. The Coens are ever so subtly saying that our leaders screwed around us, and then lied about it not only to us but to those they screwed around with, too. Similarly, the horrific mess that is created with Washington D.C. as a backdrop is used to comment on the fragility of our nation’s capital.
The “American Dream” is an ever-evolving phenomenon, but its basic principle is that anyone can 'make it' – it's the definition of making it that changes. In recent history, America has had a habit of making celebrities out of regular people based on their wealth and/or status, creating a false sense of intimacy with the general public, as well as a hope that it could happen to you. The Coens mock this in their films by highlighting the lives of the average person who doesn’t make it big, but still has big things happen to them. In Raising Arizona they juxtapose the story of two average Americans, Ed and Hi, with the Arizonas, who are twice famous, once for their fortune, and again from their multiple birth. (The Arizonas are not unlike the oil mogul Kardashian family or the Hiltons). In The Man Who Wasn't There, they again turn it on its head by showing a man whose life fits the American Dream almost to a tee on the surface, but who upon further examination has a lot of issues. Some of the influence for this could have come from families they observed growing up in suburban Minnesota, the crime and violence of their films a way to “compensate for the fact that [their] lives were incredibly mundane” (Coen, J. - Levine)None of this is to say that the Coens have not been influenced by foreign film, simply that they play out their influences in a different way. With a filmmaker like Tarantino, for example, you may get a hodge-podge of American, Hong Kong and New Wave film story-lines, whereas the Coens seem to have been influenced in practice more than style or story line. With World Cinema becoming more and more accessible to a general audience, the desire to have talented and thoughtful American filmmakers has increased, welcoming the advent of a mainstream embrace of the Coens’ films. The Coens learned early on what foreign filmmakers have known for sometime – a filmmaker cannot deny that where they came from has an effect on their storytelling and therefore on their audience. Hopefully, American moviegoers will catch up, too.