Sam Raimi: The Third Coen Brother (From Another Mother)
The Coen Brothers and Sam Raimi have a lot of overlap. So much so, that I would venture to nominate Raimi as an honorary Coen, making them the Three Stooges of contemporary genre fanboy filmmaking (Remember: Larry Fine was NOT a Howard, so Raimi would be the Larry of the group, with Joel as Moe and Ethan as Curly…of course, this is all speculation, I don’t know how official any of this pondering is). This isn’t groundbreaking insight, but it needs to be addressed because Raimi gets less respect than the Coens, and also because it’s fun to play Six Degrees with these three.
The first of this group to penetrate the business was Raimi, with his debut The Evil Dead (1981) being released three years prior to the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984). The Evil Dead was also the first of many times that Raimi and the Coens collaborated, with Joel Coen being accredited as Assistant Editor on the film (responsible for the trademark editing in the infamous “workshed sequence”).
They’re not just genre filmmakers, they also have a blatant love of cinematic technique, and know how to stylistically spin a traditional yarn.
Their next collaboration was Raimi’s second feature, the obscure find that is Crimewave (1985), which the Coens’ co-wrote and make minor appearances in. This twisty, cartoonish, uncategorizable movie reportedly had a disastrous production, creating little-to-no buzz and generating even less box office. It has since been confined to the get-it-if-you-can-find-it shelf in the movie buff’s dream store (if you find it, look for the Hudsucker company references).
Crimewave (1985) trailer
1990 saw two collaborations (reminder: I’m using “collaboration” loosely here) between them: Darkman and Miller’s Crossing. Though Raimi conceived, co-wrote, and directed Darkman, the Coens were uncredited developers of this deliberately cult superhero film. The Coens’ classier offering–the Irish gangster film Miller’s Crossing–featured a brief appearance by Raimi in a cameo role.
Raimi in the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Eventually, the Coens turned one of their earliest scripts The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) into a feature, which Raimi co-wrote with them around the time they did Crimewave. Raimi also has a brief appreance in this one, not to mention a great supporting turn by Raimi regular and friend Bruce Campbell. This marked the end of their direct collaborations (thus far), but there have since been plenty of indirect collaborations in the form of correlations. The Coens apparently used their filmmaking experience for Fargo (1996) to give Raimi advice on shooting in the snow when he did the underrated A Simple Plan (1998). This film starred Billy Bob Thornton, who co-wrote Raimi’s The Gift (2000) and then immediately starred in the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), following that with a supporting role in the Coens’ Intolerable Cruelty (2003). Around this time, J.K. Simmons began popping up in films from both factions.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) trailer
Aside from cast and crew overlap, what else do these filmmakers have in common? Well, for starters, they’re all Jewish, they’re all from the Midwest, they’re all writer / director / producers, and they all have fun with genre conventions, whilst delivering on the goals of each respective genre. If you stacked their films together, you’d get every major American genre except for the musical (though O Brother Where Art Thou? comes pretty close at times, and The Dude’s fantasy sequences in The Big Lebowski certainly owe a lot to Busby Berkeley): horror, superhero, sports, noir, western, gangster, screwball comedy, supernatural thriller, adventure, and fantasy. To watch each of them take on the western, have a double feature of The Quick and the Dead (1994) and True Grit (2010). Fargo and A Simple Plan also work in succession, and have similar themes and locations. They’re not just genre filmmakers, they also have a blatant love of cinematic technique, and know how to stylistically spin a traditional yarn. There’s a strong sense of humor running through all of their work, and there’s an in-joke element to their style, like they’re giddy that only a few people will get what they’re doing. They’ve both been criticized for making their audiences feel slightly out of the loop, and that doesn’t seem to bother them one bit. It’s almost as though they’re making films for each other sometimes.
There are a few notable differences as well, the most obvious one being the use of computer-generated-imagery. The Coens have a more classical approach to their effects (matte paintings, fake blood, etc), and Raimi’s projects have recently abandoned his more practical roots, requiring a large number of special effects to make them believable (Spider-Man, for chrissake!). As a result, Raimi’s films have taken on much bigger budgets than the Coens have yet to need. Another difference between them is sequels and remakes: only Raimi has made sequels, but only the Coens have done remakes, so they’re both either guilty of or the exception to the usual waning quality of these types of endeavors. I think they’re the exception.
They’ve both been criticized for making their audiences feel slightly out of the loop, and that doesn’t seem to bother them one bit.
With all this said, why doesn’t Sam Raimi get as much universal respect as Joel and Ethan Coen? I think the budget does play a part, since CGI is a less impressive cinematic technique than smaller, more practical filmmaking (to “serious cinephiles”, anyway). I also think it’s because Raimi dabbles in more typically low-brow genres: horror, superhero, sports, supernatural thriller, so despite their similarities, the Coens feel more classic in scope and style. I do truly believe that the Coen Brothers are “the Great American Filmmakers” of the past thirty years–and I stress AMERICAN. Their stories are truly American in genre, in region, in colloquialism, etc. Take a look at where their body of work has been: the south, the east, the west, the midwest. And their stories, characters, dialect, and locations are all contingent with these locations. This is a tough mantle to dismantle for a single person against two, but I guess instead of the Three Stooges moniker, we can give Raimi the Brian Wilson to the Coens’ Lennon & McCartney (despite the difference in nationality). Which begs the question: who is the walrus? N’yuk, n’yuk, n’yuk.