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The United States of Coen

March 28, 2004|James Verini | Special to The Times

"The LADYKILLERS," the new Coen brothers film, is the story of a florid robber (Tom Hanks) and the prayerful black matron who foils him. It takes place in the fictional town of Saucier, Miss. Where it really takes place, though, is the South. The Coens have been there before: It's where they go when they want to find snoozing police chiefs, devout Baptists, white linen and the occasional gruesome death, all of which abound in this film.

Though set in the new, multicultural South -- brought forth most of all in the soundtrack, which mingles classic gospel, hip-hop and Baroque chamber music -- "The Ladykillers," like so many of their films, feels like a throwback. It wavers between the farcical and the gothic.

There are those American film auteurs -- John Ford, Billy Wilder, Martin Scorsese -- whom we associate with certain places and times. The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, represent another tradition. (And we can call it a tradition: They've been making films together now for 20 years.) They are itinerants. In 11 films, they've represented no fewer than eight states and at least a dozen cities or towns.

They've made films in California, Minnesota, New York, Louisiana, Arizona, Texas and Mississippi, and with a mind to the 1920s, '30s, '40s, '90s and 2000s, which is to say nothing of the befogged Jeff Lebowski of "The Big Lebowski," the Dude as he's known, who lives around the time of the Persian Gulf War but is stuck in a cloud of marijuana smoke wafting over from the 1960s.

Joel, who takes credit for directing and cowriting, and Ethan, who takes credit for cowriting and producing (in fact, they both do everything), build each story around their vision of a place, even going so far as to include geography in the titles, as in "Raising Arizona" and "Fargo," a city in North Dakota; they craft characters and find houses and cars and clothes and music that bespeak the place down to the minutest detail; and then, poof, they pick up camp and go somewhere completely different for their next project.

The Coens grew up in Minneapolis. They attended Simon's Rock College in Massachusetts, a school for gifted students below college age ("We couldn't get out of Minneapolis fast enough"). Joel, 49, continued on to New York University, and Ethan, 47, headed to Princeton. They now both live in Manhattan, Joel with his wife, actress Frances McDormand, who's appeared in five of their films, and their adopted son, Pedro, 9, on the Upper West Side.

Ethan lives close by in the Murray Hill neighborhood with his wife, Tricia Cooke, an editor who's worked on seven of their films, and their daughter, Dusty, 3, and son, Buster, 5. Sitting in either corner of an overstuffed couch in a Century City hotel last week (with their blue jeans, loose shirts and 5 o'clock shadows, the brothers looked as though they might have been more comfortable in the gloomy Hotel Earle from "Barton Fink"), the Coens said they began thinking hard about landscape and locale from their first moments in film. A few years ago, they planned to make a film called "To the White Sea," about a World War II fighter pilot from Alaska who is shot down over Japan and traverses the country on foot to get to the Pacific Ocean. "That was going to be all about landscape," said Joel, the more talkative and taller of the two. (The project foundered for lack of money.)

They made "Blood Simple," their 1984 debut feature, in and around Austin, Texas, where Joel briefly attended graduate school. The film opens with a curt monologue from a reptilian private detective, played by M. Emmet Walsh.

"What I know about is Texas," he mutters. "Down here, you're on your own." This cartoonish rendition of the Lone Star ethos shoves us, like some incensed ranch hand, into a Texas of barren expanses and roads stretching menacingly into the night.

"Location is often a starting point in our thinking about stories," Joel said. "It's not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind, but it's got to be there pretty early." In "Blood Simple," whose bare-bones plot begins with adultery and murder and ends with more murder, they were inspired by a spate of true-crime books from the early 1980s that they called "very Texas." As untested independent filmmakers ("Blood Simple" was made for $750,000), they used locations and crew members drawn from around Austin and among Joel's friends as a matter of economy.

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