Navigation – Plan du site

The Wandering Character in the Coen Brothers’ Films: When the Southern Gothic Meets the Western

L’Errant dans les films des frères Coen : quand le Gothique sudiste rencontre le Western
Julie Assouly


L’Errant revient fréquemment dans la filmographie des frères Coen. Arpentant le sud et l’ouest des Etats-Unis, deux régions que ces réalisateurs ont plusieurs fois explorées, leurs personnages errants sont mystérieux, menaçants, parfois grotesques, la plupart ayant sans aucun doute des origines gothiques. Si l’image du cowboy solitaire est de fait l’apanage du Western classique, le chasseur de primes poursuivant des hors-la-loi reste un personnage clé du Western spaghetti, et du Western révisionniste au sens large. On retrouve ces archétypes dans leurs formes contemporaines dans Sang pour Sang, Arizona Jr ou No Country for Old Men, des films qui réinvestissent l’iconographie du Western, et dans une certaine mesure dans Fargo qui offre une relecture du mythe de la Frontière. Les personnages qui parcourent le territoire américain en quête d’argent ou d’aventure sont aussi un motif cher à la tradition littéraire sudiste. Les Coen ont d’ailleurs avoué avoir réalisé The Ladykillers et O Brother, deux films se déroulant dans le Mississippi, en ayant les œuvres de Flannery O’Connor en tête. Prédicateurs malhonnêtes, vendeurs ambulants ou prisonniers en cavale ont remplacé les cowboys et chasseurs de primes dans les films sudistes des Coen, mais leurs pérégrinations sont toujours prétextes à découvrir les régionalismes américains. Pour finir, c’est semble-t-il le phénomène d’hybridation entre les cultures du sud et de l’ouest qui fait la spécificité du cinéma des frères Coen, déjà présent dans Barton Fink (1990), il réapparaît dans No Country… et True Grit (2010), laissant transparaitre une influence du gothique et du grotesque sudiste dans lesquels le personnage errant joue un rôle prédominant. S’appuyant sur une analyse des films sudistes et des Westerns des frères Coen par le biais de l’Errant en tant qu’instrument critique, cet article s’attache à mettre en évidence les liens possibles entre les cultures du sud et de l’ouest américains, dans la littérature et au cinéma, en se fondant sur la possibilité que les racines gothiques de l’Errant dans la littérature européenne ont influencé les littératures du sud et de l’ouest américain, puis la culture populaire américaine, pour devenir un élément prégnant du phénomène d’hybridation générique qui ponctue la filmographie des Coen.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

1The idea of studying the theme of the wandering character in the Coen brothers’ films originally emerged while trying to make sense of the enigmatic cowboy-narrator played by Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski (1998). Why open this out-of-the-norm – vaguely noir – comedy with a long tracking shot following a tumbleweed from the desert through the city to the beach, as the well-named Sons of the Pioneers play a very appropriate tune entitled “Tumbling tumbleweeds”? It may be the Coens’ way of reminding their audience that the time of the California Gold Rush is not so far way and Frontier justice (practiced by Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in his own way) has survived a long civilizing process. It has since then become obvious that the wanderer, often an anonymous – or partially anonymous – character, coming from nowhere, with no background, is a seminal figure in the Coen brothers’ filmography. The motif was introduced in their very first film, Blood Simple (1984) with the character of Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), a corrupt, cynical cowboy/private eye. In that case, the cowboy looks are less surprising as the film takes place in Texas, but the mystery surrounding the character and the absence of information regarding his background make him almost unreal. From the giant statue of “fakelore” character Paul Bunyan (the Gothic-looking wandering lumberjack holding his axe, magnified by the low angle shot) to the enigmatic sheriff Cooley and his mirrored-sunglasses in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the Coens’ filmography includes countless variations on the figure of the wanderer. The continuous movement of the Frontier throughout the 19th century made the theme of the wanderer an obvious choice for Western novelists, whose works seem to have influenced the Coens as much as the hard-boiled novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain or Flannery O’Connor’s Southern grotesque style.

2The aim of this article is to propose an analysis of the Coen brothers’ films through the recurrent figure of the wandering character. Its origin in the Gothic literary tradition has been assimilated by the Southern Gothic/grotesque and the Western genres in literature to be recycled decades later by the Coens in their films regardless of their genre. This process of hybridization has become their trademark as directors.

Literature as a source of generic hybridity

  • 1 He has published a collection of short stories, Gates of Eden (1998), poems The Dr (...)
  • 2 The brothers experienced a writer’s block as they were struggling to finish writing Miller (...)
  • 3 Marie-José Lavie, “Barton Fink et William Faulkner,” Positif367 (September 1991).
  • 4 Clifford Odets (1906-1963) was an American playwright of Jewish descent who grew up in Bro (...)

3Joel and Ethan Coen have shared a deep interest in literature since their childhood in Minnesota as very harsh climate confined their activities to reading books and watching films in the house. Contrary to a lot of directors, they have always been sensitive to the process of writing films before making them. They have written all their screenplays, reworked existing stories such as Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005) or Charles Portis’ True Grit (1968), and have admittedly drawn heavily on several of Dashiell Hammett’s novels including The Glass Key (1931) and Red Harvest (1927) for their gangster film Miller’s Crossing (1990). They also reinterpreted Homer’s Odyssey in O Brother where art thou?, whereas Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is a take on Dave von Ronk and Elijah Wald’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005). Although his filmmaking career has always overshadowed his passion for writing, the younger brother (Ethan) is a published writer.1 The two brothers have a marked taste for noir hard-boiled novels, pulp Westerns, dime novels and Southern literature whose influence transpires more or less obviously depending on the film. Their most memorable and straightforward homage to Southern literature came very early in their career as they dedicated their fourth film, Barton Fink (1991), to the theme of writing (or more precisely not writing) by exploring the question of the writer’s block (based on their own experience).2 It is the story of a New York playwright, Barton Fink, hired by a Hollywood studio to write a wrestling movie. He seeks assistance from a more experienced writer, W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a provocative depiction of William Faulkner as a Southern gentleman with the behavior of a Texan drunkard. Although it seems exaggerated, the Coens used actual facts of the writer’s life as they appear in German historian Otto Friedrich’s book City of Nets. A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940’s (1986). Among many other stories, he explains how the Southern writer never really fitted in the Hollywood crowd and went through several periods of severe depression until Jack Warner finally cut him loose. The film also features a stock character of Southern literature and films, the Southern belle, Mayhew’s mistress Audrey (Judy Davis), inspired by the author’s actual mistress, Meta Carpenter.3 To some extent, Faulkner’s real-life experience epitomizes the old, yet caricatural, cultural fault-line that has divided Western and Southern cultures: the educated Southern writer lost among Western philistines, or the discrepancy between Southern education and Western vulgarity. But the Coens would not abide by those clichés without a more twisted agenda. Considering the film with critical distance, it seems that the brothers drew more on literature than on mere biographical anecdotes, as in fact their version of Faulkner has more to do with one of O’Connor’s “would-be intellectuals,” an impostor who uses his secretary to write his screenplays, than with a genius who has lost his way in Hollywood (referred to as “a salt mine” in the film). As a matter of fact, Barton Fink delivers a very astute comment on America’s regional/cultural differences through its characterization and locations. The first sequence establishes a discrepancy between the East and the West coasts, Broadway being considered as highbrow culture and Hollywood as lowbrow in the 1940s. Going to Hollywood, Barton accepts to compromise his intellectual integrity as a “leftist” writer (loosely based on Clifford Odets).4 Yet, the representation of the North is in itself caricatured: Barton is supposed to represent the common people to whom he dedicates his plays, but he evolves among a ridiculously snobbish crowd who belongs to high society. The transition to California is made through a very long dissolve showing a rock hit by the waves on a Californian beach gradually unveiling Barton as he stands in the dark lobby of a seedy hotel where most of the action will take place. Incidentally, Hollywood is portrayed as an enclosed setting but a sequence alluding to the South, featuring Mayhew and Audrey on a picnic lunch with Barton, shows a recreation of what resembles a Southern landscape in books, green and sunny with a light breeze. The Southern couple is elegantly dressed in white according to Southern fashion, as opposed to Barton who never leaves his dark brown suit (his Northern working-class writer’s uniform). What could have been the serene moment Barton was craving for, his reconciliation with Hollywood, is spoiled by Mayhew’s rudeness and aggressive behavior toward Audrey. The old author ends up leaving the table and drinks himself to death, singing a traditional melancholy Southern tune, Old Black Joe (Stephen Foster, 1853), as if he were denouncing the fate of black slaves as his own. In the film, the West (California) has become a hellish place where supposedly sophisticated writers are damned, strangely echoing what the two directors strive to avoid in real life. On the other hand, in a usual demonstration of cynicism, the Coens strongly question the legitimacy of wannabe-artists and intellectuals through the portrayal of Fink and Mayhew, mimicking O’Connor’s take on this issue as summarized by Laurence Enjolras:

  • 5 Laurence Enjolras, Flannery O’Connor’s Characters, Lanham: University Press of America, 19 (...)

These smarter, frustrated individuals are trapped in a conflicting situation in which they see themselves as victims. However, as the author craftily shows, in reality they are all failures, ineffectual creatures who have deluded themselves in thinking that they know something, possess something, or can achieve something.5

4This description perfectly fits the character of Barton Fink who, pretending to try and enlighten Hollywood philistines by bringing them “the life of the mind,” ends up labeled a “phony” by the Hollywood magnate, Lipnick, and despised by the common man, Charlie. The connection between the film and O’Connor’s world seems unmissable. Similarly, Professor Higinson Dorr (Tom Hanks) in The Ladykillers fits the aforementioned description even more so considering he is a mock-cliché of the Southern gentleman who can quote Poe on any occasion, but fails to know that the Sorbonne is a university where he could not possibly have obtained a “Baccalaureat” as he claims.

5More interestingly, the shadow of the hard-boiled novel is also noticeable in the second half of Barton Fink, when the drama becomes a crime story after Audrey’s dead body is found in Barton’s bed. The ensuing investigation calls upon the intervention of two detectives revealing the identity of a serial killer who happens to be Barton’s neighbor, Charlie. The film is therefore a perfect blend of the directors’ favorite literary genres, the Southern grotesque and noir fiction, treated with the critical distance that characterizes their work. With Charlie Meadows AKA Mad Man Munch (John Goodman), the Coens also introduce a type of wanderer who belongs to both Southern and Western traditions, the traveling salesman, a well-known regular character of Southern Gothic/grotesque literature encountered in Flannery O’Connor’s and Carson McCullers’ novels. His Western counterpart would be the “snake oil salesman,” a charlatan traveling the West to sell miraculous potions to credulous people, a stock character of Western dime novels also seen in Arthur Penn’s revisionist Western Little Big Man (1971) and recently reinterpreted by Christoph Waltz as a bounty hunter in disguise in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). The traveling salesman is, by definition, a stranger whose aim is to invade people’s privacy by gaining their trust. On top of being a crook, he represents a potential threat that could be related to the Gothic roots of the wanderer.

Gothic roots

  • 6 Louis Harap, The Image of the Jew in American Literature: From Early Republic to Mass Immi (...)
  • 7 “The first part of the story takes the form of a letter in which Jonathan Dunwell explains (...)
  • 8 Frédéric Astruc, Le Cinéma des frères Coen, Paris: Cerf, 2001, 90-94.
  • 9 Other codes of the Gothic can be found in Barton Fink: the theme of the haunted ho (...)

6Bernard Terramorsi and other literary scholars before him trace the origin of the wandering character in literary fiction back to the Christian myth of the wandering Jew, this Jewish shoemaker who, after refusing to help Christ on the way to Calvary, is said to have been condemned by God to eternal wandering.6 This myth fed anti-Semitic stories in the Middle Ages and inspired the creation of a key character of 19th century Gothic novels, gradually losing its anti-Semitic turn to become the Gothic wanderer (e.g. Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, 1820, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 1818). In short, Terramorsi points out how the theme of the wanderer has crossed the Atlantic with the Gothic genre and is notably featured in William Austin’s 1824 novel Peter Rugg: the missing man.7 Of course, the theme of roaming has always been a popular one in a country in perpetual expansion such as the United States. The Gothic origin of the wanderer prevails in the Southern literary tradition (with the Southern Gothic genre and grotesque subgenre), and often transpires in Western pioneers’ accounts, in Western fictions known as dime novels (particularly successful in the second half of the 19th century), and later in films. Incidentally, a possible transposition of the wandering Jew is featured in the Coens’ gangster film Miller’s Crossing: Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) combines every anti-Semitic cliché ever created. He is a crooked-nosed, greedy, cowardly bookmaker, a liar, a traitor and incidentally also a wanderer that Frédéric Astruc considers as a grotesque character due to his awkward appearance.8 First compelled to exile for double-crossing the Italian mob, he finally chooses to roam the city, threatening the man who saved his life, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne). The Jewish origin of the character might just be a coincidence – although it is unlikely coming from the Coens, given their own Jewish background and the recurrent allusions to Jewish culture in almost all their films. The character of Bernie inaugurates a pattern which consists in including a wanderer in each of their films. As a matter of fact, Barton Fink is also a declination of the wandering Jew condemned to a lifetime in Hollywood, tied by a contract to a movie mogul who owns him (as Jack Warner owned Faulkner). Also, in the same film, the Gothic nature of the wanderer is pushed to an extreme with the character of Charlie, especially when Barton’s “friendly” neighbor reveals himself to be a serial killer – a wandering killer in the Gothic tradition.9

7A few years later, claiming to have adapted Homer’s Odyssey, the two directors shot O Brother, where art thou? as an adventure through the Deep South and emphasized the importance of the wandering character in the very first shot of the film by quoting the poem:

Oh Muse! Sing in me, and tell the story
Of that man skilled in all the ways of contending,
A wanderer, harried for years on end…

8Charlie Meadows’ Southern counterpart in O Brother is Big Dan Teague, also played by John Goodman, a traveling Bible salesman (in Mississippi) who also happens to be a psychopath and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. To some extent, stock characters create a parallel between Southern and Western cultures by drawing on the same Gothic roots with an emphasis on the grotesque, supposedly a Southern tradition, although Flannery O’Connor herself acknowledges its Western origin:

  • 10 Flannery O’Connor, op. cit. 817.

In the 19th century American writings, there was a good deal of grotesque literature which came from the Frontier and was supposed to be funny; but our present grotesque characters, comic though they may be, are at least not primarily so.10

  • 11 Michel Ciment et Hubert Niogret, “Joel et Ethan Coen,” Positif, n° 317-318, juillet-août (...)
  • 12 Susan Castillo, “Reading Signs: Epistemological Uncertainty and the Southern Grote (...)

9One of the reasons why the brothers admire O’Connor is indeed her ability to create “freaky” characters.11 In O Brother, the salesman is a one-eyed giant, a clear reference to classical literature (he is supposed to embody the Cyclops) and the Southern grotesque defined by Susan Castillo as “a Bakhtinian carnival of crazed businessmen, sinister hairdressers, serial killers, con artists, mad housewives desperately seeking for redemption.”12 Indeed, Big Dan might well have been inspired by the Bible salesman who takes advantage of a young girl’s candor to steal her wooden leg in O’Connor’s Good Country People (1955). Big Dan is a perfect example of the Southern grotesque characters cherished by O’Connor, disproportionate and ugly. His scary physical appearance is in keeping with his complete lack of compassion and his cruelty to harmless Delmar. He offers a good demonstration of his sadism in one of the most memorable sequences of the film, when he crushes a frog – that is supposed to be Pete – in his bare hands, making a squishy sound recalling that of a bottle of Ketchup being squeezed. However, the Coens’ taste for the Southern grotesque did not only spur the creation of an array of “freaky characters”; the two directors also responded to that subgenre’s violence and cruelty through demonstrations of black humor.

10Following that example, it is possible to demonstrate that Southern wandering characters almost systematically have their Western counterparts within the filmography of the Coens, regardless of the prevailing genre of the film, suggesting the directors always draw heavily on Gothic codes and iconography.

When the South meets the West

  • 13 The cat in The Ladykillers is another example of a psychopomp animal who plays an (...)

11The Coens’ Western and Southern films also address the theme of the wandering sheriff chasing fugitives, bringing to the fore a Gothic heritage. Sheriff Cooley (Daniel von Bargen) in O Brother (whose name is only mentioned in the script) going after three runaway convicts, Pete (John Turturro), Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Everett (George Clooney), is silent and mysterious. He never takes his mirrored-sunglasses off and keeps chasing his preys, day and night, with his bloodhound that, like psychopomp animals in Gothic novels, seems to be omniscient.13 The man is portrayed as the devil himself by Tommy (Chris Thomas King), the runaway black musician, and pictured as such by the Coens who, through Tommy’s voice, once more exaggerate the Gothic codes to stick to the comic genre: “He’s white white as you folks, with mirrors for eyes an’ a big hollow voice an’ allus travels with a mean old hound.” At first, we only see his boots and his dog, then he appears in a low-angle shot, with flames reflecting in his glasses. His Western counterpart could be Marshall Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) in True Grit, a one-eyed almost bestial drunkard and a former confederate soldier whose appearance recalls Southern grotesque characters. However, his lack of viciousness and sadism does not qualify him as one, he is “in-between” two genres. True Grit itself is a hybrid Western, taking place on the Southern border between Kansas and Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma). The film is an adaptation of Charles Portis’ eponymous novel which was also adapted by Henry Hathaway in his 1969 Western starring Oscar-awarded John Wayne, while the genre was going through a transitory period. The Coens did not use the adaptation as a reference; on the contrary, they emphasize the dark aspect of the story a lot more, adding new elements to reinforce the Gothic atmosphere already surfacing in Hathaway’s film but significantly loosened compared to the original story. For example, Hathaway would not show a one-armed Mattie (Kim Darby) and simply transformed her amputation into a mere injury. In counterpoint, the Coens refocus on Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) and underscore her handicap at the end of the film, out of respect for the original work. The Gothic dimension of this Western seems to appeal to them in the first place, which is why they strengthen it by adding a rotten hangman in the middle of the forest, his face being eaten by a crow – a possible creepy reference to Poe. Similarly, the forest where part of the pursuit takes place is no longer the thick mountain forest of pine trees where classical Westerns are usually set, but a sparser forest of high trees with a foggy atmosphere that evokes fantasy stories.

12In a completely different context, The Ladykillers features a mock contemporary Southern gentleman, Pr Higginson Dorr (Tom Hanks) who is meant to be an American version of Alec Guinness’ character in the original British film by Alexander Mackendrick (1955). He is, like the other Coenian wanderers, a double-sided character, known as a professor in public life – but in fact a fraud – and secretly a crook. However, his most remarkable trait is probably his pale face, with black-circled eyes and his grim forced-smile revealing yellowish teeth: in brief, he is a comic version of the Gothic villain. The Coens explained they purposefully chose the South and its Gothic tradition to transpose the original Victorian England story. The film is not about the South, but the Southern background is used as a pretext to incorporate Gothic elements in contemporary life in the South, which no longer corresponds to the cliché embodied by Dorr (if it ever did). The choice of Poe (once more alluded to by the raven in the opening credits) to be the professor’s specialty participates in the caricature constructed by the Coens to underline how people tend to reduce the traditional South to the Gothic tradition. To some extent, the character of Chigurh (Javier Bardem) could be a Western version of the Gothic wandering villain, at least physically. He is also pale, with black-circled eyes, forcing the same scary smile and… has a weird haircut. Only, No Country is not a comedy and Chigurh is a real villain, contrary to Dorr who is only a fraud. Comparing Chigurh to a Gothic villain could seem a bit vain, but one cannot fail to notice that he does not belong to the traditional archetypal characters of the Western genre. He is out of his element because apart from his boots, he has nothing of the classic cowboy attire; he looks like a Gothic version of the bounty hunters that can be found in Leone’s spaghetti Westerns (e.g. Sentenza/Lee Van Cleef). Chigurh is not a creation of the Coens (except the haircut) but one of Cormac McCarthy’s “creatures of the frontier,” roaming the Texas-Mexico border as a predator. Calm, methodical, self-assured and pitiless, he is on the prowl, treating men like cattle. His prey is a classic cowboy who has adapted to modern life. Hunting with a sniper rifle and goggles, Moss (Josh Brolin) is the modern frontiersman who learnt his hunting skills in Vietnam, another frontier. The first two sequences put together summarize the whole plot: Moss is hunting antelopes while Chigurh is murdering a cop, the hunter will become the hunted.

13To some extent, generic hybridity was already a specificity of Raizing Arizona, the Coens’ second film, a comedy introducing the character of Leonard Smalls AKA “the lone biker of the apocalypse” (Randall “Tex” Cobb):

He was horrible, a lone biker of the apocalypse, a man with all the powers of hell at his command. He could turn the day into night, and lay to waste anything in his path. He was especially hard on the little things, the helpless and the gentle creatures. He left a scorched earth in his wake, befouling even the sweet desert breeze that whipped across his brow. I didn’t know where he came from or why. I didn’t know if he was dream or vision. But I feared that I myself had unleashed him... For he was The Fury that Would Be as soon as Florence Arizona found her little Nathan gone.

14This description is told by the main protagonist, Hi (Nicolas Cage) who has kidnapped one of the “Arizona quints” with his barren wife, a policewoman named Ed (Holly Hunter). His guilty conscience disturbs his dreams, taking the appearance of the lone biker of the Apocalypse, a scary-looking bounty hunter who is in fact a real person going by the name of Leonard Smalls: “My friends call me Lenny. Only I ain’t got no friends.” He describes himself as “a tracker-part Hopi Indian, some say part hound dog,” using his bestial appearance to create a supernatural character (he is wearing leather pants and fur boots, is very hairy and his face is covered in black dust). Smalls is the comic counterpart of Anton Chigurh, both being creatures of the Frontier chasing their preys, surrounded with a supernatural aura that connects them to the Gothic genre and both being the embodiment of contemporary Frontier justice. Although Raising Arizona is a comedy and No Country a crime film/contemporary Western, their hybridity is connected to the wandering characters and the territory they roam, Texas and Arizona, the South and the West, soaked in America’s violent past.

Cultural wandering

15Anton Chigurh is one of Cormac McCarthy’s most memorable creations. McCarthy is surely one of the most emblematic contemporary American Southwestern authors to date as a Southern writer whose literary work opened to Western influences as he went west. Chigurh is a mysterious wanderer whose name is not revealed at first. Nicknamed “a living prophet of destruction,” as Gothic wanderer Peter Rugg who was referred to as “the storm-breeder,” “a black speck” or “a black cloud,” Chigurh is introduced in the novel the way a Gothic villain would be. Not naming villains or monsters is indeed a Gothic tradition that was later used in Westerns (e.g. Leone’s characters) and horror novels and films (e.g. Lovecraft/Stephen King) as a means to emphasize the awe they inspire. In McCarthy’s novels, hybridization between Southern and Western cultures results in a dark and pessimistic vision of America, as explained by Susan Kollin:

  • 14 Susan Kollin, op. cit., 558.

Bringing elements of the Southern grotesque to bear on Western themes and conventions, McCarthy added a grimmer, bleaker vision to the genre, providing what appeared to be the definitive statement on Manifest Destiny.14

  • 15 Sanford E. Marovitz. “Poe’s Reception of C. W. Webber’s Gothic Western, Jack Long; (...)
  • 16 Ibidem, 11.

16The theme of wandering in Southern and Western literary traditions, on a larger scale, could exemplify a form of cultural wandering, the journey of the Gothic genre from East to West and West to South through the works of various writers, giving way to a process of hybridization. It resulted in the emergence of various subgenres such as the Gothic Western. With his novel Jack Long; or the Shot in the Eye, written in 1844 and published in 1853 as part of a collection of novels entitled Tales of the Southern Border, Charles Wilkins Webber inaugurated this new hybrid genre praised by Poe himself, who considered the novel as “one of the happiest and best-sustained tales” he had read.15 His admiration was partly due to the two authors’ taste for the same motifs: “revenge, ritual slaying, symbolic regression of the character to a primitive state, the Doppelgänger or divided ego and the motif of the ‘eye’,”16 which makes it a probable source for Cormac McCarthy’s 19th century Western Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (1985). The novel is about a group of bounty hunters led by judge Holden going on a murder spree along the US-Mexico border between 1849 and 1850. Many of McCarthy’s novels show good examples of how Gothic themes, subservient to the motif of the wanderer, endeavor to merge Western and Southern cultures to better debunk national myths in the process. As the wanderer is a symbol of acculturation and hybridization, emphasizing the Gothic/grotesque nature of this character is a way to stress the violence underlying the creation of the United States itself, for if Western and Southern cultures are historically and almost traditionally opposed, they certainly share the same history of violence and cruelty made ordinary. The Gothic motif of the wanderer might thus be an agent revealing both the artificial or stereotypical differences between Southern and Western cultures and their terrifying ordinary violence. The figure of the Gothic wanderer in the Coen brothers’ films seems to fulfills these aims: he is in turn the directors’ mouthpiece, a messenger mocking the stereotypical representations of the South and the West in mainstream culture, and the psychopath emphasizing the similarity of Western Frontier justice and Southern vigilantism, as exemplified in a comic way in O Brother through the “riding the rail” scene and the “KKK choreography” or more darkly by including a hangman in True Grit as a clear reference to lynching.


  • 17 Ronald Bergan, The Coen Brothers, London: Orion, 2000, 25-26.

17Generic hybridity is probably one of the most discussed issues among researchers studying the Coen brothers’ films. Ronald Bergan even asserted in 2000 that all their films were somehow comedies and film noirs blended with other generic conventions.17 Blurring the somehow artificial boundaries between the genres, their hybrid films may be rooted in their passion for American literature, which obviously contributes to building their artistic identity. The presence of a wandering character in most of their films participates in their generic, or should we say, artistic hybridity. Often surrounded with a mysterious aura, the Coenian wanderer is a variation on such archetypal characters as the private eye of the hard-boiled novel, the bounty-hunter of the dime novel, the sheriff and outlaws of the Western, the traveling salesman of the Southern Gothic/grotesque literature, all of them being more or less connected to the Gothic theme of wandering, possibly inherited from the legend of the wandering Jew. Coenian wandering characters have kept the mystery and the grotesque appearance of the Gothic, often the source of a comic relief or a demonstration of black humor. But they also serve as a pretext to allude to the violent past of the country, Frontier justice and vigilantism being central themes of the aforementioned literary genres. To some extent, those wanderers enable the directors to reassert the importance of the Gothic and the Southern grotesque in American cinema. Giving them a central place in their films is also a means to pay homage to Southwestern literary traditions.

Haut de page


ASSOULY Julie, L’Amérique des frères Coen, Paris: CNRS, 2012.

ASTRUC Frédéric, Le Cinéma des frères Coen, Paris: Cerf, 2001.

BERGAN Ronald. The Coen Brothers, London: Orion, 2000.

CASTILLO Susan, “Reading Signs: Epistemological Uncertainty and the Southern Grotesque in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood,” in Hans Bak (ed.) Uneasy Alliances : Twentieth century Literature, Culture and Biography, New York: Rodopy, 2004, 173-185.

CIMENT Michel et Hubert Niogret, “Joel et Ethan Coen,” Positif, n°317-318, juillet-août 1987.

ENJOLRAS Laurence, Flannery O’Connor’s Characters, Lanham: University Press of America, 1998.

FRIEDRICH Otto, City of Nets: a Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940's, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986.

HARAP Louis, The Image of the Jew in American Literature: From Early Republic to Mass Immigration, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974.

KOLLIN Susan, “Genre and the geographies of violence: Cormac McCarthy and the contemporary Western,” Contemporary Literature v. 42 n°3 (Fall 2001): 557-88.

LAVIE Marie-José, “Barton Fink et William Faulkner,” Positif 367 (september 1991).

O’CONNOR Flannery, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” in Collected Works, New York: The Library of America, 1988, 817.

MAROVITZ Sanford E., “Poe’s Reception of C. W. Webber’s Gothic Western, Jack Long; or, The Shot in the Eye,” Poe Studies vol. IV, no. 1 (June 1971), 11-13.

TERRAMORSI Bernard, Le mauvais rêve américain : les origines du fantastique et le fantastique des origines aux Etats-Unis, Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994, 111.

Haut de page


1 He has published a collection of short stories, Gates of Eden (1998), poems The Drunken driver has the right of way (2001), and a play Almost an evening (2008).

2 The brothers experienced a writer’s block as they were struggling to finish writing Miller’s Crossing. They decided to stop working on it and wrote Barton Fink’s screenplay as a sort of therapy. They finally completed Miller’s Crossing and shot it before Barton Fink.

3 Marie-José Lavie, “Barton Fink et William Faulkner,” Positif367 (September 1991).

4 Clifford Odets (1906-1963) was an American playwright of Jewish descent who grew up in Bronx and became famous for his left-wing plays during the Great Depression (e.g. Waiting for Lefty, 1935). He was investigated by the HUAC.

5 Laurence Enjolras, Flannery O’Connor’s Characters, Lanham: University Press of America, 1998, 43.

6 Louis Harap, The Image of the Jew in American Literature: From Early Republic to Mass Immigration, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974, 242. Bernard Terramorsi, Le mauvais rêve américain : les origines du fantastique et le fantastique des origines aux Etats-Unis, Paris: L’Harmattan, 1994, 111.

7 “The first part of the story takes the form of a letter in which Jonathan Dunwell explains how, in 1820, he first encountered a man and a child mounted on a “chair” (the chassis of a carriage without the protective shell it was built to carry) pulled by a black horse. The mysterious stranger, who seemed to be pursued by a relentless storm cloud, impatiently asked the way to Boston and was sorely distressed to find that he was heading the wrong way. Dunwell then relates how the driver of the coach on which he was traveling told him that the stranger had been wandering the roads for longer than he could remember, always in a desperate hurry, always asking the same question, and always confused by the answers he received.” (

8 Frédéric Astruc, Le Cinéma des frères Coen, Paris: Cerf, 2001, 90-94.

9 Other codes of the Gothic can be found in Barton Fink: the theme of the haunted hotel and the living-dead, the mysterious noises and the final arson.

10 Flannery O’Connor, op. cit. 817.

11 Michel Ciment et Hubert Niogret, “Joel et Ethan Coen,” Positif, n° 317-318, juillet-août 1987.

12 Susan Castillo, “Reading Signs: Epistemological Uncertainty and the Southern Grotesque in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Bloodin Hans Bak (ed.), Uneasy Alliances: Twentieth century Literature, Culture and Biography, New York: Rodopy, 2004, 174.

13 The cat in The Ladykillers is another example of a psychopomp animal who plays an active part in the plot, it reappeared recently in Inside Llewyn Davis.

14 Susan Kollin, op. cit., 558.

15 Sanford E. Marovitz. “Poe’s Reception of C. W. Webber’s Gothic Western, Jack Long; or, The Shot in the Eye,” Poe Studies, vol. IV, no. 1 (June 1971), 11-13.

16 Ibidem, 11.

17 Ronald Bergan, The Coen Brothers, London: Orion, 2000, 25-26.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Julie Assouly, « The Wandering Character in the Coen Brothers’ Films: When the Southern Gothic Meets the Western », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XVI-n°1 | 2018, mis en ligne le 11 juillet 2018, consulté le 18 février 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.9304

Haut de page


Julie Assouly

Julie Assouly est Maître de conférences en Civilisation américaine et cinéma à l’université d’Artois (Arras). Spécialiste des frères Coen, elle a publié en 2012 L’Amérique des frères Coen (CNRS éditions, réédité en format poche en 2015). Elle dirige la série « Cinémas » aux APU (Artois Presses université).

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • OpenEdition Journals