Joel and Ethan Coen Are Better Together: ‘Drive-Away Dolls’ Proves It

Weak sex farce shows why 'Raising Arizona' auteurs need to reunite, and fast

One of the greatest works of criticism about the Coen brothers comes from Screentakes’s Jennine Lanouette in her review of “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

The 2013 drama is arguably one of Joel and Ethan Coen’s greatest works. The film follows a grieving Greenwich Village folk singer as he grapples with a failing career and the suicide of his creative partner. His life is beset with greater and greater failures, up to and including having his career overshadowed by folk singer Bob Dylan.

Inside Llewyn Davis - Official Trailer [HD]

As Lanouette argues, the film’s psychological underpinning is rooted in the idea of creative partnership and separation anxiety, and this realization made her weep.

“It’s a personal film! That’s what got under my skin. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ at its core, is nothing less than a big imagining on the part of the Coen brothers of how terrible their life would be without the other.”

What has made the Coen brothers powerful as creatives has been an essential creative fusion in their collaboration. Throughout their extensive filmography—”Raising Arizona,” “Barton Fink,” “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski,” “No Country for Old Men,” “A Serious Man,” etc.— it has been clear that both filmmakers have a level of intellectual and creative chemistry that has made their films essential, vibrant, funny, dark, and among the best works of cinema of any modern filmmakers.

It was impossible to tell at a glance where their creative instincts came from, but the pairing worked beautifully and created great art.

This was true until 2021.

Following the Netflix western “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the cohesive creative pair parted ways, with the 63-year-old Ethan Coen stating that he was tired of making movies. Joel Coen would subsequently go off on his own and direct the 2021 AppleTV+ adaptation of “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” receiving critical acclaim for its excellent performances, heavy atmosphere, beautiful cinematography and creative interpretation of the Shakespearean source material.

Much to many people’s surprise, Ethan Coen has returned from his self-imposed exile—bringing both a new movie and the news that the brothers are reuniting for an upcoming horror movie project.

That new movie “Drive-Away Dolls,” a lesbian road trip comedy co-written with Ethan Coen’s polyamorous partner Tricia Cooke.

The fact now that we have both “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and “Drive-Away Dolls,” as films respectively directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, is unprecedented. Not since HBO Max released the “Snyder-Cut” of “Justice League”—with directors Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder having released commercially competing cuts of the film—have filmgoing audiences been given such an obvious chance to look under the hood and dissect how artists tick in direct contrast.

DRIVE-AWAY DOLLS - Official Trailer [HD] - Only In Theaters February 23

It will be decades before film historians can properly pick apart these films and fully tell us the nature of how Joel and Ethan work together, as often such relationships are counterintuitive.

It took decades of litigation to figure out how much of “Citizen Kane” was respectively originated by director Orson Welles and screenwriter Herman Mankowitz. Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s “AI: Artificial Intelligence,” originating as Stanley Kubrick’s final film before his death, has whimsical elements that are attributed to Kubrick and more cerebral Kubrickian elements that Spielberg conceived.

The lines are never fully clear.

At a glance though, “Drive-Away Dolls” offers a brief glimpse at how these two artists operate absent one another—which is good because that’s the only interesting thing to discuss about the movie.


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The movie’s direction is amateurish, with flat cinematography, bizarre stock sound effects and Windows Movie Maker-tier transitions edited between scenes. Its script is limp, albeit stocked with characters that map well onto classic Coen Brothers archetypes—being largely working-class fools and criminals who find themselves in way over their heads.

However, it lacks Joel Coen’s steady directorial hand and ends up just coming off as a bunch of raunchy lesbian jokes and political jabs in search of a Coen Brothers comedy.


Ethan Cohen’s humor definitely speaks through the film, with some quirky characters, dialog and one very strange cut where a brutal murder under a statue of Benjamin Franklin cuts directly to two women having sex. The 1999 setting bizarrely adds humor and the American South setting appeals to a lot of the same classic Americana of the director’s earlier films, with a touch of satire to give it some edge.

Ethan Cohen’s preoccupations do depart from his brother’s insofar as he approaches politics.

Where Joel and Ethan Coen Dramatically Differ

While sexuality and politics aren’t foreign to them, the movie’s overt exploration of sexual repression and sex scenes are unusually graphic. The movie is also overtly partisan, with a sizable “Fargo”-esque subplot about an up-and-coming Florida Republican Senator attempting to cover up his sexual indiscretions for the sake of his career.

It reads as an indirect jab at politicians like Gov. Ron DeSantis and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who the film argues put up a false “family values” front to repress their real intentions and desires.

It is curious how, despite its visual challenges and thematic weakness, it still feels like a Coen brothers film. Their comedy films like “O Brother Where Art Thou,” “Burn After Reading” and “Hail, Caesar!” have a wonderful sarcastic wittiness to them, that still subtextually presents a very dark and bleak view of the world.

Hail, Caesar! - Official Trailer (HD)

One might guess that their creative process may be rooted in a tension between a nihilist wanting to depict the world bleakly (Joel) and an absurdist eager to add more humor and laugh at its meaninglessness (Ethan).

This tension is curious, given how many of their films have collectively been ruined by this balance being thrown off. “Ladykillers” and “Intolerable Cruelty” lack the bleakness and they lose a great deal of the humanity of their other films. “Burn After Reading” is one of the darkest movies of their filmography and it is also a pitch-black comedy with some of their best jokes.

Conversely, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is one of the most nakedly moody and dower films of the lot, and it comes off as a bit cold in comparison to films like “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo.”

This isn’t to say that the lesser Coen Brothers films are bad, as even their weakest film “The Hudsucker Proxy” is still a vibrant and incredibly unique comedy. All of the films mentioned above are wonderful. But if their two most recent films are any indication, Joel and Ethan Coen have very different instincts and talents as artists and that fusion is the core of what makes their best films masterpieces.


Their career highlights—”Fargo,” “No Country For Old Men,” “A Serious Man” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”—are the films in which their sardonic humor and absurdist bleakness work in tandem, where the humanity of these characters is most nakedly depicted and where the struggles they catch themselves in are most sympathetic.

These are textured and powerful works of moral cinema, rooted in comedy and tragedy, and founded by the Coen Brothers’ outsider viewpoints as midwestern secular Jews living in Christian America—to which they feel deeply sympathetic and disconnected in equal measure.

The rich Old Testament moralism of “A Serious Man,” the old Hollywood panache of “True Grit” and the bookishness of “O Brother Where Art Thou” have made their works unique as filmmakers and has made them among our most appealing and insightful filmmakers—beloved by people of all creeds and perspectives.

While their two most recent films are certainly valuable, they are nothing compared to what they can produce when working together.

Tyler Hummel is a Nashville-based freelance critic and journalist, a member of the Music City Film Critics Association and the 2021 College Fix Fellow at Main Street Nashville.


  1. You write about this disgusting and I mean not just aesthetically but also literally disgusting garbage instead of covering films like LITTLE WING or ARTHUR THE DOG about the healthy normal people going out and becoming even better persons in collision with nature.

    1. This site cannot cover every film. Too much content, not enough time. It’s important to assess a variety of titles and stories, and that’s why ignoring Drive Away Dolls, to me, is a mistake. We’ve recently covered Cabrini, a film that fits directly into what you’re talking about. We’ll shortly review “Bardejov,” a film that similarly speaks to our greater humanity.

  2. Actually LLewyn Davis missed on several key points that fake christians just ignore. His career was “overshadowed” by Bob Dylan BUT DON’T EVEN KNOW WHY THAT MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED!!! Bob Dylan sings LIKE A FROG ENDURING AN ANAL PROBE! How could someone like this become famous AS A SINGER? How could someone like this “over shadow” actual SINGERS?

    On 60 Minutes , while being interviewed by Ed Bradley, BOB DYLAN ADMITTED TO SELLING HIS SOUL FOR FAME. This shocked fake christian Bradely but millions have seen the shocking interchange. Any movie that delves into Bob Dylan’s success and ignores all of this is garbage.

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