Arts & Culture

The Coenmandments: Thou Shalt Take It Easy, Man

While marked by murder, mayhem, deception, and all manner of chaos, there is an order—a moral order—to the world depicted in Joel and Ethan Coen’s films. That’s the good news. The bad news is that when the moral order is … Read More

By / October 9, 2009

While marked by murder, mayhem, deception, and all manner of chaos, there is an order—a moral order—to the world depicted in Joel and Ethan Coen’s films.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that when the moral order is upset, the consequences can be dire, brutal, and swift.

The Coeniverse is not a godless place, but the Almighty isn’t necessarily a God of mercy and grace. Sometimes God is all about fire and brimstone, retribution, and blind justice. Other times, God seems absent—a clockmaker who winds the watch and walks away. Still other times, God is a projection of our imagination and a representation more of our wants and needs than a real divine force.

Drawing on the theology of their own Jewish upbringing—as well as Christian, Buddhist, and nontheistic worldviews they may not share themselves—the Coens tackle confounding questions about the meaning of life, the nature of faith and God, and the karmic cycle with equal honesty and aplomb. The result is a complicated gospel—one that, it would seem, the filmmakers want viewers to navigate for themselves, rather than showing them the way.

That said, there are certain clear do’s and don’ts in the Coeniverse. As Walter Sobchak so kindly reminds us, “There are rules. This isn’t ’Nam.”

THE 14 COENMANDMENTS:

I. What goes around, comes around. Even though divine intervention happens from time to time, don’t count on it to save you from your sins.

II. Every action has a reaction. What you do has consequences, even if you don’t see them immediately.

III. Don’t mistreat women. They’re all special ladies.

IV. Whatever you try to hide, somebody will discover. In other words, your sins will find you out.

V. It is better to be kind than to be right, and love always wins.

VI. Take chances. Don’t be paralyzed by doubt or fear.

VII. Beware false piety. Sometimes there’s a stranger in your midst come to destroy you.

VIII. Don’t get too hung up on dogma and legalism. It’s just, like, your opinion, man.

IX. All moments might be key moments. Act like they are.

X. No one knows the quality of a person’s heart except for God.

XI. When it comes to suffering, don’t ask why. There’s no good answer.

XII. No one ever really knows anyone completely. Remember, you only know what a person chooses to let you know.

XIII. Be compassionate, respectful and generous — especially to strangers. You never know when you might be talking to a lamed vavnik, a prophet, or an angel in disguise.

XIV. You don’t know what God is thinking. So quit acting like you do.