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25 Best Coen Brother Characters

From Barton Fink to the Dude, counting down Joel and Ethan’s craziest, most unforgettable creations

Fargo; Coen Brother; Characters; Raising Arizona; The Big Lebowski

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A classic Hollywood leading man who's duped into participating in his own kidnapping. An Esther Williams-like bathing beauty who talks like a Brooklyn dock worker. A happy hoofer harboring a secret. A studio fixer stuck in an existential crisis of faith. Not one but two chirpy gossipmongers, both played by Tilda Swinton. Like most Coen brothers movies, the siblings' latest — the old-timey Tinseltown satire Hail, Caesar! — is chock full of goofs, rubes, dames (of the daffy and determined variety), swells, thugs, mugs, and the occasional pure-of-heart innocent. But all of the singular creations in Joel and Ethan's new comedy come from a long line of unforgettable heroes and villains that have graced the cinema du Coen since the very beginning.

So in honor of the movie hitting theaters today, we're counting down the 25 best Coen brother characters of all time — from anxious playwrights to morally bankrupt criminals, hysterical wannabe moms to stoic hit men, dumb-as-a-brick he-men to the Dude himself.

Ed McDonagh; Raising Arizona

RAISING ARIZONA, Holly Hunter, 1987, TM and Copyright (c)20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

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16

Ed McDonagh (‘Raising Arizona’)

Coens obsessives know that Holly Hunter was actually the brothers' first choice to play Blood Simple's Abby, a role that eventually went to Joel's future wife Frances McDormand. Instead, her movie career was launched with the Coens' follow-up film, in which she plays a no-nonsense cop who falls for a goofy con (Nicolas Cage) and kidnaps a local newborn since she can't have kids of her own. Raising Arizona is rightly proclaimed as one of the great screwball comedies of the 1980s, but the film's immense bounty of laughs wouldn’t mean much without some heart underneath, which is where Hunter came in. Her Ed is part Lady Macbeth, part moral compass, part quietly fuming voice of reason — she's the straight woman amidst this collection of bozos and reprobates. But the actress also provided the character with a flinty sex appeal that was both vulnerable and alluring. She's the kind of woman you'd want to grow old with in Arizona … or maybe Utah. TG

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15

Leo O’Bannon (‘Miller’s Crossing’)

We're never told exactly where the Coens' Prohibition-era gang saga takes place, but it doesn't take long to figure out who's in charge. Sitting behind his mahogany desk like a more virile Vito Corleone, Albert Finney's un-killable Leo O'Bannon rules whatever city he's in with impunity. A cigar permanently wedged between his lips and a pistol smartly placed on his bedside table, he's the Platonic ideal of an old-school mob boss: "You're exactly as big as I let you be and no bigger and don't you forget it, ever," he barks at an insolent stooge. And his bite is just as big — armed with more than enough great lines to be a vintage Coen character, O'Bannon turns out to be even more articulate with a Tommy gun. DE

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14

Carl Showalter (‘Fargo’)

A perpetually annoyed ex-con with a flapping jaw and a passion for prostitutes, Carl is Exhibit A for why you do a background check on the men you hire to kidnap your wife. And in Steve Buscemi's hands, he's also the dedicated comic relief of a movie in which even the most tragic characters are a little funny; he's such a loose cannon that nobody can ever feel safe around him (parking lot attendants least of all). Unfortunately for Carl, the bluster and big ambition that make him so much fun to watch are the same things that lead him to make the most reliably fatal mistake that a Coen brothers character can: He convinces himself that he's in control. In some places, that might pan out just fine. In Fargo, it's a one-way ticket to the wood-chipper. DE

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13

Jesus Quintana (‘The Big Lebowski’)

There are incredible movie entrances, and then there's the intro that John Turturro's Big Lebowski character gets: A hip-swinging, bowling-ball-licking victory jig set to the Gypsy Kings' version of "Hotel California." In a movie filled with kooks, freaks and SoCal oddballs, this purple-suited pederast is the most outrageous character in the Coens' wake-and-bake noir, and yes, we are counting the nihilists as well. Somehow, Turturro even turns this nutty villain into a sympathetic figure, despite the fact that he's a trash-talker and a registered sex offender. But whether you think Mr. Quintana contains multitudes or is simply a reprobate, one this is certain. Nobody fucks with the Jesus. Nobody. DF

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12

Larry Gopnik (‘A Serious Man’)

The brothers went Old Testament for their story about a cosmically beleaguered physics professor in Sixties Minnesota, and that makes Larry Gopnik the Job of suburbia. His wife leaves him for the eminently punchable Sy Ableman; one of his students tries to blackmail him; his brother loses his mind; and then things to start to get really bad. Unraveling before our eyes, Larry draws closer to God with every misfortune, but none of the rabbis he seeks for advice are able to tell him the one thing he needs to hear: If you're going to believe in God, it helps to laugh at his jokes. Just look at the parking lot, Larry. DE

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11

Chad Feldheimer (‘Burn After Reading’)

"I thought you might be worried about the security … of your shit." George Clooney is famous for playing the Coen brothers' prize-winning idiots, but Brad Pitt perfected the type with his only turn at bat. An overeager personal trainer who finds a CD of meaningless data on the floor of his gym and mistakes it for top-secret CIA information, Chad Feldheimer is what would happen if you took Pitt's character from the Ocean's movies and repeatedly dropped him on his head. Chad's obliviousness is the perfect foil for the actor's cocksure swagger (a work uniform polo shirt has never looked so farcically out of place), and you can't help but laugh at the sight of him dying for the cause of his own confusion. DE

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10

Private Det. Loren Vesser (‘Blood Simple’)

For your foulest, most criminal needs, look no further than M. Emmett Walsh's giddy, scuzzy Detective Loren Vesser. Though a deal with him is hardly in stone, and when opportunity strikes for a double-cross, he'll take it: Why kill two people when you need only kill one, and frame another to boot? Walsh's Texas drawl is so think you can barely make out his dialogue (though what you do hear is vile), but this is a man who thrives on intelligence. Even looking death in the eye is an opportunity for a belly laugh, realizing his killer has no clue about the real score. JH

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9

H.I. McDonagh (‘Raising Arizona’)

His name is Herbert, but you can call him H.I. — just keep your goddamned hands off his wife (we're talking to you, Glen!) and don't try to break up his recently acquired family unit. Nicolas Cage's uniquely coiffed ur-hipster doofus is arguably cinema's most lovable recidivist. His life is already a cartoonish maelstrom, and that's before he plots to kidnap one of the Arizona Quints. H.I. is also the type of guy to attract lunatics, so following him will let you meet men who get the menstrual cramps real bad, who offer that there's something wrong with their semen and who, when there were no crawdad, ate sand. But though he's a thief at heart, he's also a dedicated family man, and though his style of parenting ain't Ozzie and Harriet material, any man who'll risk life and limb for some Huggies is okay in our book. JH

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8

Sy Ableman (‘A Serious Man’)

When God chooses to strip you of all your self-worth, he doesn't just have your wife leave. He has your wife leave for a schlep like Sy Ableman. With all due respect to Quentin Tarantino and his Nazi-battlin' inglourious bastards: In actor Fred Melamed's hands, the bearded, baritone, uninvited-hugger, Ableman is the cinema's one true Bear Jew. The wine-gifting foil is too absurd a figure to rouse real anger, even when he's suggesting a move to the "eminently habitable" Jolly Roger. Only in dreams does he ever raise his voice (in his baby-blue cap and track suit), and even in death he causes problems both financial and spiritual. Larry Gopnik recognizes him to be a klutz; the community, however, dubs him a "serious man." JH

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7

Maude Lebowski (‘The Big Lebowski’)

"Sex. The physical act of love. Do you like it?" They say opposites attract, so it's no wonder that the terminally chill Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski and the eminently severe Maude Lebowski (no relation!) can't keep their hands off of each other. An avant-garde artist who speaks like she fell out of a Thirties class drama and paints like she's trying to make Georgia O'Keeffe look prude, Julianne Moore's Maude is literally the woman of the Dude's dreams. She's also a glorious foil for the Coen brothers' laziest hero because she cares about the central mystery even less than he does. DE

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6

Mattie Ross (‘True Grit’)

Fans of the original True Grit remember Kim Darby's pixie-cut version of this Western's heroine, all wide eyes and too-big-for-her-britches precociousness. But when the Coen brothers decided to bring Charles Portis' novel to the screen for a second go-round, they upped the steely reserve of the book's narrator, Mattie Ross — and cast a young actress who could portray the character's determination with both a sense of backbone and a bone-deep vulnerability. Hailee Steinfeld's performance rightfully nabbed her an Oscar nomination and kickstarted a career that's now gone from pop songs to a Pitch Perfect movie, but Ross remains the perfect introduce-yourself vehicle for her: A headstrong young lady who doesn't take any guff from no one-eyed gunfighter rascals yet still understands the responsibility that comes with pulling a trigger. She's one of the best of the Coens' strong female characters — you could believe that she's the great, great grandmother of either Ed McDonagh or Marge Gunderson. DF

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5

Barton Fink (‘Barton Fink’)

The rap on the protagonist of the Coens' Cannes Triple Crown winner is that he's a caricature of the leftist playwright Clifford Odets, their way of sneering at credulous saps who think art can change the world. But with time, it's become clear that this "man of the people" is a kind of negative self-portrait, his creators' fear of succumbing to self-importance made quivering, mosquito-pecked flesh. John Turturro's nuanced performance makes him an empathetic monster, but he's a monster nonetheless — a fairy tale to frighten the pomposity out of writers too caught up in their own theories to see the world in front of their noses. Anyone who doesn't fear turning into Barton Fink runs the risk of becoming him. SA

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4

Walter Sobchak (‘The Big Lebowski’)

"Over the line!" John Goodman traded his teddy-bear persona for this aggro cargo shorts-wearing lunatic bowler — the kind of gung-ho fanatic willing to draw a pistol on anyone who doesn't play by the rules. Moreover, he can get you a toe by 3 o'clock. But Walter's fly-in-the-ointment Tasmanian devil gets a key twist — it involves his religious affiliation — as befitting the cinematic tricksters behind the camera. (The character is roughly based on Joel and Ethan's screenwriter pal, Hollywood legend/Conan the Barbarian director John Milius.) He's a good friend to the Dude, and though his bull-in-a-chinaman's-shop presence is just a set-up for catastrophe, he's one of the few reliable presence's in Lebwoski's life. Jeff Bridges delivers a summation of Sobchak that, after the laughs die down, lingers as a profound commentary on human relationships. "No, you're not wrong, Walter. You're just an asshole." JH

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3

Anton Chigurh (‘No Country for Old Men’)

This take on Cormac McCarthy's pomo pulp novel was the Coen brothers' first official adaptation, but Javier Bardem's performance as sociopathic hitman Anton Chigurh made it feel like a true original. Unleashing the latent evil of the pageboy haircut, Chigurh stalks the southern border states with a coin and a cattle gun, offering everyone unlucky enough to cross his path a 50-percent chance of survival (at best). But the thing that makes him one of cinema's scariest serial killers is that, for all of the people he kills, the assassin still thinks of himself as a simple expression of an indifferent universe . He just flips the quarter; you're the one who has to call it, friendo. DE

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2

Jeffrey Lebowski (‘The Big Lebowski’)

That's his proper Christian name, thought he mostly answer to "The Dude" — you can call him "His Dudeness," however, or "Duder," or even "El Duderino" if you're not in to that whole brevity thing. Jeff Bridges' hero is many things: a stoner Angeleno, a first-rate bowler, a loyal friend and Creedence Clearwater Revival fan, a White Russian connoiseur, one of the authors of the Port Huron statement (the original, not the compromised second version), and, according to some cowboy narrators, a man for his time 'n' place. But first and foremost, Lebowski is a prime Coen creation, the sort of genial dope who the brothers specialize in and who, thanks to the movie's bearded star, a modern Zen-philosopher cult figure who abides in the hearts of millions. You do not need to have attended multiple Lebowskifests in your tattered bathrobe to recognize that the character has become even more popular and well-known than the men who spawned him. And if you don't agree with us, well, that's just like, your opinion, man. DF

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1

Marge Gunderson (‘Fargo’)

For too long, the knock on the Coens was that they savored mocking their characters, relished reducing them to regional caricatures. Fargo put that criticism to rest forever. Yes, Joel and Ethan enjoyed teasing the long-vowels speaking style of the film's Minnesotans, but in Marge Gunderson they crafted their most humane, decent, deeply endearing protagonist. Played by Frances McDormand, who won a Best Actress Oscar for the role, Marge is the exact opposite of the tough-gal heroine we usually see in action movies and thrillers: She's a happily married, very pregnant, generally sunny, stunningly ordinary police chief who just so happens to be terrific at her job. Amidst Fargo's den of cheats, murderers and flop-sweating, no-good husbands, Marge was the sweet voice of sanity, her homespun Midwestern charm so heartfelt that it belied the steely determination underneath. The Coen brothers have long examined the quirky and the misfits: In Marge, they dared to show the rich, beguiling complexity of the everyday. TG

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