WHEN KICKING AROUND a list of the best characters from a Coen Brothers movie, characters such as Marge Gunderson, The Dude, his buddy Walter, the lovely Mr. and Mrs. McDunnough, and Anton Chigurh are typically the names that both come up first, and have the most staying power. There’s a valid reason for this being the case of course but we’d be remiss to discredit, dismiss or not even consider any number of other characters from one of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films. There are just so many great candidates as memorable and unique characters have become a trademark of the Coens. Well, that and colorful dialogue, ransom money, hijinks, and bloodshed, among other things.
It has now been twenty-five years and change since the release of Fargo, and on March 6th, The Big Lebowski celebrates 25 lovely years. Both films lay claim to viable, worthy candidates when compiling a list of the duo’s “best” characters, something that has become an entertaining exercise. There’s not that much stress involved or heavy lifting to it. If anything, there are foregone conclusions and assumptions generally held by a great many people. In the same way that the NFL Playoffs have come to include largely the same collection of teams each year, a ranking of the Coen Brothers’ best characters typically features the same motley bunch. Seeding may vary but it does feel like a winner is preordained.
Well, let’s start with a fan favorite: The Dude. The Dude is not the best character from a Coen Brothers movie. Jeff Lebowski, bowling and White Russian enthusiast, might be the most beloved character and quite possibly the character most often quoted, but no, he is not the best.
Wait, is he the best?
No, no he isn’t. Top 5, maybe. But the best, the occupant of the number one spot? That feels like a stretch and surely there is someone else out there in the Coen Brothers Cinematic Universe more worthy and more deserving of the title. I love The Dude. You love The Dude. We ALL love The Dude but come on now, the fan-favorite is traditionally never the best character. If that were the case, internet rankings would be completely meaningless. Oh, the humanity! What is even the point of the Godforsaken Internet if not for ranking things and then yelling at those who rank them because they’re OBVIOUSLY WRONG?
Nope, I can answer that. It’s animal videos. That’s the point of the Internet.
Whew, glad we got to the bottom of that one.
Now, as for the best character from a Coen Brothers movie, it’s Marge Gunderderson, right? Marge, the loveable cop from Fargo, the moral center of an immoral world is definitely number one. Case closed.
Okay, so, uh, thanks for coming out. It was nice seeing you. Stay safe out there and such, and uh, yeah, let’s get together soon.
Actually, wait a second.
Is Marge really the best character? Doesn’t she seem like something of an obvious choice? If you were to do a quick search of other rankings of this particular nature, isn’t it conceivable that a good chunk of them would have Marge in the top spot? Probably. And while that’s understandable, does it make it right? Also, are we doing ourselves a disservice by not considering anyone else for the number one spot and quickly anointing Marge as the chosen one?
I think we might be. I think it would behoove us to both do our due diligence here. I also think we should use the word “behoove” more often because it is both fun to say and fun to write. It’s a linguistic twofer!
LET’S RUN THROUGH some possible contenders and then once the dust settles, see if Marge truly is the best Coen Brothers’ character.
We should start with The John Goodman Character Collection. Goodman has appeared in six Coen Brothers’ films as well as Sawbones, a radio play the brothers did in 2005, which is adorable. A radio play. In 2005. Wait a few years and call it a podcast, fellas.
The John Goodman Character Collection:
Raising Arizona (Gale)
Barton Fink (Charlie Meadows)
The Hudsucker Proxy (Rockwell News Announcer)
The Big Lebowski (Walter Sobchak)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Big Dan Teague)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Roland Turner)
Now, how would we rank them?
The John Goodman Character Collection Ranked:
6. Rockwell News Announcer
5. Roland Turner
3. Big Dan Teague
2. Charlie Meadows
1. Walter Sobchak
Walter is a top-five character across the Coen Universe, so he could be considered for the top spot in an overall ranking. After that, Charlie Meadows is a fringe top ten guy, so he’s not really in the discussion and we can only hope he is able to understand that because Charlie Meadows has a bad side and you don’t want to get on Charlie Meadows’ bad side.
Walter it is.
And now we ask, is Walter Sobchak the greatest Coen Brothers’ character ever?
Walter is iconic and whenever he’s on-screen, it’s hard to not follow his every move and hang on to his every word, almost all of which are endlessly quotable. Overall, The Big Lebowski might be the Coen Brothers’ most quotable movie but that can be sussed out at another time. While it’s a close race between Walter and The Dude for who would be the most quotable character in the most quotable movie, Walter just edges out The Dude.
The 5 Best Walter Lines From ‘The Big Lebowski’:
5. “Life does not start and stop at your convenience you miserable piece of shit.”
4. “Smokey, this isn’t Nam, this is bowling. There are rules.”
3. “Of course they were Nazis, Donny; they were threatening castration! Are we gonna split hairs here? Am I wrong?”
2. “You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me. With nail polish.”
1. “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS, LARRY! THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FUCK A STRANGER IN THE ASS!”
I love the coffee line because it says so much about Walter, how he’s a man of staunchly-held opinions and beliefs. Public disturbances aside, he’s going to stick to his guns. Unless it’s Saturday of course.
But I couldn’t imagine ranking Walter ahead of The Dude in regards to the best Coen Brothers’ character and The Dude may kind of still be in the running to take home the crown. Therefore, Walter, you’re out.
Staying with The Big Lebowski before venturing on, the film features a couple of other characters who aren’t in the conversation for the best character but could easily be talked about when looking at the entire rankings: Maude Lebowski, Brandt, and Jesus Quintana. Maude is delightfully weird, Brandt is delightfully uptight and Jesus is delightfully kept from being close to children. Being delightful might bring a smile to your face, but it doesn’t get you into the top ten, let alone into a debate as to whether or not you can unseat Marge (or maybe The Dude.)
So what about Fargo then? Is there anyone from the film that gave us Marge that could possibly take her down? The only serious contenders are Jerry Lundergaard and Carl Showalter.
I could see Jerry in the 10-15 range. As far as the Coen Brothers’ characters who are way out of their league and continue to find ways to contribute to their eventual demise, Jerry might be the gold standard. Carl is also great, but even in a head-to-head with Jerry, he comes up short, a result that would be considered the second-worst thing to happen to him. The first being, well, you know.
It does not look like anyone else from Fargo is going to make a run at Marge. That’s just how the (wood) chips are going to fall. Or Carl chips? If Carl gets thrust into a wood chipper and thus pieces of Carl get spit out, would they be called Carl chips? Hmm. Maybe. At the very least it’s something to think about later while walking the dog.
HOW ABOUT SOMEONE from No Country For Old Men? It’s arguably the Coen Brothers’ best film and the one which earned them an Oscar for Best Film (one of four Oscars the film received.) Overall greatness aside, as for characters, I think only two of that film’s characters could be considered as it pertains to this particular discussion.
Anton Chigurh is a given. The other candidate would be another reliable and steady law enforcement official, Ed Tom Bell. While I love Bell and his reaction to the trail of blood Chigurh leaves behind is remarkable and a similar but slightly more weathered response as Marge had in Fargo, he really isn’t anything more than a lower-tier great Coen Brothers’ character. To be considered something more than that, I think you need to be a character who was behind the wheel of the movie, inciting action as opposed to reacting to it.
You know, like Anton Chigurh.
Chigurh is an all-time big bad, not just in a Coen Brothers movie, but in any movie. That dude is terrifying, an embodiment of evil unlike we had seen in a Coen Brothers film before. They had done symbolic evil before, but never to the degree of Anton, a character that reached unrivaled heights of menace and impending doom. As the personification of life’s cruelty and unofficial spokesman of violent indifference, Chigurh comes the closest yet to knocking off Marge (and The Dude.)
But alas, friendo, he’s a lock at three at best.
THERE ARE TWO more Coen Brothers’ films that feature more than one character up for consideration.
First is Raising Arizona, the duo’s second film. As was previously mentioned, John Goodman’s Gale is in the mix. But the real contenders would be Edwina McDunnough, H.I. McDunnough, and Leonard Smalls. Smalls though, despite being visually amazing, is at about the same level as Gale. Smalls was the first physical incarnation of evil the Coens ever did, yet he was an incarnation slightly more personal, as it was almost as if he was all of H.I.’s past decisions catching up to him.
A valuable role player, but not an all-time great character.
The outlook is more promising for the McDunnoughs and who you’d want to place ahead of who feels like one of those things could change based on the day of the week, your mood, or your stance on child abduction. Edwina is definitely the heart of the film, its moral compass, whereas H.I. is more of a wild card, trying his damnedest to make things right between him and the misses.
I give a slight advantage to H.I., if only because Raising Arizona is more of his story than Edwina’s, and in a situation such as this and in a life such as ours, those little differences are where the reasons behind our decisions lie.
H.I. is a top-five character but I say he falls behind Anton, The Dude, and Marge. Even Walter. And how about that? I might have my top five.
No, not yet. Let’s slow our roll, friends. We said we would be diligent and we said we should leave no stone unturned. Bucking on that now would be unfair and a disservice to ourselves.
SO HOW ABOUT an O Brother, Where Are Thou? character? Surely Ulysses Everett McGill is in the mix, right? In the mix for the back end of the top 10, yes. But any higher than that? Eh, it seems the eighth spot is McGill’s ceiling.
I do think it’s worth noting how wild it is that amidst everything that goes down in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you know, the chain gang break, the cat and mouse game with the devil, the creek-side temptresses, the shooting of innocent cows, a KKK song-and-dance number and four or five other things that I may have forgotten, McGill and his dudes become pop stars. When they break out “I Am a Man Of Constant Sorrow” towards the end, the kids go nuts. Do you think the Soggy Bottom Boys did anything after that or were content to let that one song speak for itself?
The only other character in O Brother I’d consider is old Pete but like Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona, he’s more of a valuable contributor off the bench than a bonafide star.
We’re getting there and it does seem like Marge is standing tall.
I THINK WE CAN bang a couple of these candidates out right quick. What do you say?
Let’s start with some title characters.
Barton Fink? No.
Buster Scruggs? No.
But wait, there are a couple of things I’d like to add about Buster Scruggs.
- “Looks like when they made this fella they forgot to put in the quit” is a GREAT line. I can’t ever see myself being in a situation where I could use it properly, but here’s for hopin’.
- Westerns typically make me come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t have lasted very long in the old west and this film is no exception.
That’s it. I just wanted to get that out there before moving on.
Llewyn Davis? He’s in the top ten, but I can’t see him in the top 5. And not for nothing, but that movie has always felt less like a movie and more like a meditative character study to me. Either way, Oscar Issac’s portrayal of Davis must be one of the best performances in a Coen Brothers movie. That’s not a bad consolation prize.
A Non-Ranked List of the Five Best Performances in a Coen Brothers’ Movie:
Oscar Issac as Llewyn Davis
Javier Barden as Anton Chigurth
Frances McDormand as Marge Gunderson
John Goodman as Walter Sobchak
Brad Pitt as Chad Feldheimer
Yes! Chad Feldheimer!
If this piece does anything, I hope it encourages you to go back and rewatch Burn After Reading. I know I’m going to. I added it to our movies-to-watch list and everything, which is how you know it’s serious.
Yet while I love Chad and I ride with Brad Pitt whenever possible, I’d be hard-pressed to have him in the top ten. Slotting him somewhere around thirteen seems more realistic.
Here are a couple more suggestions:
- Loren Visser from Blood Simple or Leo O’Bannon from Miller’s Crossing? Nope.
- Hobie Doyle from Hail, Caesar!? He’s probably the best part of that movie, but no.
- Amy Archer from The Hudsucker Proxy? I’d have her around 17 or 16 in a ranking.
- Larry Gopnick from A Serious Man? A serious way to cap off the top 20.
Is there anyone else?
Yeah, how about young Mattie Ross from True Grit? She was really good and held her own in a cold, unforgiving world. Ross could maybe sneak into the top ten but it would be tough, kind of like the old west, and I really can’t stress enough how poorly I would do in such a situation. I mean, starting a fire alone without the friendly assistance of a starter log would be problematic enough but I also have this thing about bad teeth and there had to have been so many bad teeth in the old west. I’d be gagging uncontrollably and then would likely die of dysentery.
So that settles it then.
In no particular order, our top five are Marge Gunderson, Walter Sobchak, Anton Chigurh, H.I. McDunnough, and The Dude. H.I. and Walter are coin flip at five and four and Anton is a lock at three. That would mean The Dude is at two and Marge is number one. Right? This is it, this is done. We had some fun and now it’s time to move on, see where you can stream Burn After Reading, and go about your business.
Or is it?
Is Marge really number one?
Or is it (pause for dramatic effect) THE DUDE?
Yeah, it’s The Dude. It’s Jeffrey Lebowski. Not the rich, miserable Jeffery Lebowski but the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the one who likes bowling, joints, White Russians, and little else.
Marge Gunderson is an all-time great movie character but The Dude is an iconic character who transcends a specific medium. We will see versions of Marge again but I don’t know if we’ll see another version of The Dude, someone who operates at his own frequency, dances to his own tune, and exists very comfortably and happily in his own world. The Dude is a tie that binds friends together, a link between experiences, and a way to make sense of any number of situations via gifs and quotes.
From a history of movies standpoint, there’s Marge. But from a history of the world standpoint, there is the Dude, and there will always be The Dude.
And now the case is closed.
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