The second of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]
The Coen brothers’ riotously funny sophomore effort begins with the odd coupling of two supposed opposites–Hi the criminal and Ed the cop. While writing-producing-directing duo Joel and Ethan have long used crime as a backdrop for their characters’ prickly existential reckonings both before and since this movie’s release in 1987, their lawbreakers and crime-fighters have tended toward fatalistic collision courses. Here they’re literally married and poised to tackle life (and the film’s conflict) hand-in-hand.
Hi, a compulsive repeat-offender, and Ed, a by-the-book cop, represent two ends of a spectrum that saturates much of our popular multimedia. Especially for an audience watching in Reagan’s ‘80s, Hi and Ed McDunnough are “types” onto whom certain values might be projected. To this day, the prevailing perception of crime (as with addiction, homelessness, etc.) in the United States is that it reflects a distinctly moral failure. Simply because he’s a criminal, we might suppose that Hi lacks the fortitude to deal with life’s problems in legitimized ways–”They got a name for people like you, Hi: Recidivism”– and, simply because Ed is a police officer, we might suppose she knows right from wrong and will choose appropriately. The Coen brothers are setting us up to draw from our readymade cultural assumptions about who we can expect Hi and Ed to be in the face of hardship.
When tests reveal Ed is unable to conceive children (and they will be unable to adopt due to Hi’s criminal background), the couple is heartbroken and comes to see themselves in a way that reflects the desert landscape which surrounds them–defined precisely by what they lack. But where we’re primed to expect each of them to respond to this conflict in fundamentally different ways, informed by a presumed disparity in their characters, we are shown instead that they respond in exactly the same way. Together as co-conspirators, they resort to kidnapping one of the quintuplets born to the Arizona family as a means of filling the baby-shaped hole they perceive in their lives. We learn that when faced with desperation, rather than diametrically opposed, Hi and Ed are equally susceptible to temptation.
Though all this progresses in a decidedly comedic register–to all-time great effect–there is genuine longing at the story’s center. Despite ongoing trends in the U.S. toward having fewer children and beginning to do so later in life, it remains the case that childbearing and rearing remain incredibly weighty topics, especially among those for whom it’s a deep desire. In Matthew 4, Jesus prepares for ministry by fasting in the desert for 40 days and nights–upon which Lent’s 40 days are modeled–at which point Satan tempts satisfaction through the transformation of stones to bread. Considering that hunger is a very real matter of life and death, it’s striking that Jesus refuses the seemingly straightforward opportunity to satisfy his hunger. In some sense, then, Jesus considers the alternative option even more perilous.
While I don’t think this needs to be read literally–as if anyone should starve rather than, say, steal food–I do think it demands to be taken seriously. In Hi and Ed’s case, faced with the (admittedly extreme) temptation to turn stones into bread by trumping infertility through abduction, which choice is most perilous, most representative of a kind of death? They come to realize that overcoming their inability to have a child by taking one from someone else does not bring them the life they’d hoped it would. They return Nathan Jr. to his parents, an act of repentance for which Nathan Sr. thanks and forgives them.
In the concluding sequence, faced with a future that may no longer include offspring, Hi narrates as an old couple welcomes their kids and grandkids into their home for a feast:
Was it wishful thinking? Was I just fleeing reality, like I know I’m liable to do? But me and Ed, we can be good, too. And it seemed real, it seemed like us. And it seemed like, well, our home.
Whether or not it’s precisely “real,” it remains a representation of a newfound hope. They see that their lives, rather than defined by what they lack, can still hold a future of grace and peace and contentment in ways that are just as fulfilling and significant as if they could birth children of their own, and far more-so than if they had proceeded with their plan to raise (Nathan) Arizona (Jr.). As Jesus would forego the transformation of stones to bread and yet go on to miraculously turn too little food into more than enough, so do Hi and Ed find that beyond their desperation is a bountiful life; altogether different and immeasurably more abundant than the false dichotomy of parenting versus misery. It’s worth mentioning, too, that there’s no way of isolating the McDunnough’s wish to start a family from the cultural pressure suggesting that they–and especially Ed–should. Let us not be in the business of creating misery for ourselves or our neighbors through a lack of imagination or hospitality.
As Hi’s vision isn’t necessarily real, Lent, too, is a time of practice and imagination. In the Lenten season we fast–whether literally or figuratively–not only to gain the appreciation that comes with breaking it, but in order to be better acquainted with the desperation it entails. This desperation might tempt any of us to selfishly reshape the world to satisfy our desires. Through the practice of Lent, Jesus teaches us that, even in the face of genuine temptation, “we can be good, too.”