You can expect many things when watching a movie made by Joel and Ethan Coen: unusual storylines, beautiful cinematography, witty dialogue, a strange fascination with hair and, above all, unique characters.
In their latest, "True Grit," opening today, the brothers Coen put their signature twist on the Charles Portis novel's lead characters, especially on the aging, one-eyed drunkard Marshall Rooster Cogburn (the role that garnered John Wayne his only Oscar win, and played by Jeff Bridges here). Truer to the novel than the 1969 movie version, the Coens' influence on Portis' characters shine through, as their distinct banter and colorful traits are hard to miss.
But this is just the latest in a long line of characters fashioned by the Coens in their careers. Who could forget the creepy private eye Loren Visser in their 1984 debut feature, "Blood Simple," or Nicolas Cage's memorable performance as small-town crook H.I. McDunnough in "Raising Arizona." Coen characters are diverse and anything but, well, normal. Sometimes the brothers specifically choose their favorite actors, such as John Goodman, John Turturro and Frances McDormand (who's married to Joel), to flesh out zany characters, while other times they cast people you'd never think could pull off what they want, like Tim Robbins or Brad Pitt. Regardless, many of the characters have become fixtures in the minds of cineastes.
Here we've taken on the arduous task of selecting the 10 most memorable Coen brothers characters. Did yours make the cut?
10. Ed Crane, 'The Man Who Wasn't There' (2001)
Memorable line: "Me, I don't talk much. I just cut the hair."
One of the least-heralded characters created by the Coens, Billy Bob Thornton perfectly plays the quiet, chain-smoking barber Ed Crane, who meanders through life in an unhappy marriage until a string of unlikely events leads him to the electric chair. Though audiences didn't flock to the Coens' dark brand of humor this time around (or figure out what the deal was with all the UFO references), Thornton gives one of the strongest performances of his career.
9. Bernie Bernbaum, 'Miller's Crossing' (1990)
Memorable line: "Look inside your heart."
After gaining attention with their comedy 'Raising Arizona,' the Coens showed that no genre is safe from their storytelling, as they turned to Prohibition-era gangsters for their next project. Filled with double-crossers and other shady characters, one of the most twisted is John Turtturo's Bernie Bernbaum, a bookie who is always looking for how he can one-up the other guy, and even cheats death (well, at least once). This would be the first in a long collaboration between Turturro and the Coens.
8. Charlie Meadows, 'Barton Fink' (1991)
Memorable line: "I'll show you the life of the mind!"
John Goodman plays the friendly neighbor of playwright Barton Fink in a drab Hollywood hotel. A "common man," as Fink likes to call him, we learn by the end that Meadows isn't as tame as Fink thinks. Better known as serial killer "Madman Munt," his return to the hotel in the film's finale is thrilling to watch.
7. Ulysses Everett McGill, 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' (2000)
Memorable line: "I don't want Fop, goddamn it! I'm a Dapper Dan man!"
Before George Clooney took on the role of Ulysses Everett McGill, the leader of a trio of chain gang escapees in search of a treasure valued in the millions, he was still searching for the respect in movies that he had already accomplished in TV for his five years on 'ER.' The Coens provided that with this motor-mouthed charmer, a role Clooney revels in. With a pencil-thin mustache and a particularity with his hair, Clooney looks the part of the era and delivers the Coens' dialogue to perfection.
6. Walter Sobchak, 'The Big Lebowski' (1998)
Memorable line: "Do you see what happens when you f**k a stranger in the ass?!?"
He doesn't roll on Shabbos. He's a stickler for the rules of bowling. And he can get you a toe. John Goodman's portrayal of Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak (which, legend has it, is based in part on 'Apocalypse Now' scribe John Milius) is plain fun to watch. Whether he's dropping F-bombs or brandishing his piece, just when you think he can't do anything crazier Sobchak does just that. Thank you, Coen brothers, for creating Walter Sobchak.
5. Barton Fink, 'Barton Fink' (1991)
Memorable line: "I'm a writer, you monsters! I create! I create for a living!"
The Coens have always thought of themselves as outsiders of the Hollywood system, and with the character of Barton Fink they explore that sentiment. John Tuturro plays the title character, a successful playwright in New York who must cope with writing a wresting picture for a studio that puts him up in a depressing Hollywood hotel room. With his high-top haircut and high-brow intellect, Fink sticks out in La La Land.
4. Marge Gunderson, 'Fargo' (1996)
Memorable line: "Say, Lou, didya hear the one about the guy who couldn't afford personalized plates, so he went and changed his name to J3L2404?"
Though the Coens have created a number of memorable female characters, they always seem to play second fiddle to their male counterparts (see Holly Hunter in 'Raising Arizona'). However, that's not the case with Frances McDormand's good-humored and very pregnant Brainerd County chief of police Marge Gunderson. Winning a Best Actress Oscar, McDormand plays the part by perfectly blending together a gumshoe detective with a PTA mom.
3. Anton Chigurh, 'No Country for Old Men' (2007)
Memorable line: "What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?"
Arguably the Coen's most disturbing character yet, Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance) gave us chills in 2007 not just because of his disregard for human life and unusual way of exterminating it, but also his creepy monotone voice, blank stare and (who could forget?) classic haircut. Perhaps Chigurh's scariest feature is how blasé he is about his killing, often tossing a coin in the air to decide the fate of his victims.
2. H.I. McDunnough, 'Raising Arizona' (1987)
Memorable line: "I found myself driving past convenience stores ... that weren't on the way home."
Speaking of haircuts, the Coens cast the follicle wonder Nicolas Cage to play career criminal H.I. McDunnough. Though he has committed to go on the straight and narrow, things become complicated when he and his wife can't have a child and they decide to take one of the famous "Arizona quints." We relate with good ol' boy McDunnough because, like all of us, he's just trying to get by ... that is, with a stolen baby, a penchant for doing petty crimes, and a demented biker searching for him. But other than that, he's just like us.
1. The Dude, 'The Big Lebowski' (1998)
Memorable line: "I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback."
Were you expecting someone else to top this list? The Coens' ode to Jeff Dowd, the producers rep who hustled to get their first film noticed, has become, without question, their most recognizable character. Immortalized by Jeff Bridges, Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski is a mellow Los Angeleno whose meek existence (highlighted by bowling and White Russians) is interrupted when two thugs mistakenly pee on his rug and The Dude seeks compensation from the urinators' intended target, a millionaire with the same name. However, he quickly finds himself in the middle of a kidnapping scheme and has to ward off nihilists, a porn producer and the Big Lebowski to get to the bottom of it all. It's nothing bowling a few frames and rockin' out to some Creedence won't cure. The Dude abides, and that's why we love him.
Honorable Mention: Amy Archer ('The Hudsucker Proxy'), Abby ('Blood Simple'), Professor G.H. Dorr ('The Ladykillers'), Carl Showalter ('Fargo'), Jesus Quintana ('The Big Lebowski'), Jerry Lundegaard ('Fargo').