Coen Bros Style Guide

Coen Bros Style Guide

One cult movie wasn't enough for the Coen Brothers. Their movies can’t be pigeonholed by one set of styles - yet, they’re distinctive in tone. Let's break down the ingredients of the Coen Bros' style - the color, the symbols, the frames - to see some of what’s working to make these multiple impactful movies.

Palette Guide

The Big Lebowski - Just looking at this palette gives you a memorable wash of the Dude. Or should that be unwashed? A range of muddied olives and mauve shows the dude clearly doesn’t separate his whites. Unless it’s a White Russian, obviously. These are not muted or tired, they’re vibrant in the way a polaroid is - it’s a retro vibe, like the bowling alley itself.

On the Fargo set, the shades are cooler with the environment too. This allows fresh, blood red to really cut through and take center stage. 

No Country for Old Men -  through epic landscapes, and deep earthy tones, a Western palette is established from the start. Unlike the freezing contrast in Fargo, this is subdued warmth - the skies again recall old Kodak film tones and even the interiors have and often the key light is from outside - showing the characters against a sunlit window or in dim hotel rooms (no LED bulbs here) - again putting the emphasis on the dominating geography and time of the world they inhabit.

Inside Llewyn Davis  - This really tells us how there is no “Coen” palette but that color is motivated by story. As with many of their films the palette gives an aged retro vibe to the film… but not via those warm vintage tones in No Country for Old Men. Instead, the feeling is washed out and sad, without actually being blue. Their cinematographer Peter Doyle revealed in an interview that he took out the blue channel so that “skin tones had just enough of a twist to not be realistic, to be a little romanticized, like a memory”. It’s lyrical and reflective of the music, borrowing the tones of a poster from New York’s 1960s folk music scene.

Not least - the distinctive scheme from O Brother Where Art Thou is in a genre and palette of its own. A landmark in digital color adjustment at the time, this movie was noted for its weird combo of gold and khaki. It was burnished, and it was dirty at the same time - although far from realism, this texture brought us closer to the grit of the convicts’ adventure.

Signature Shots

POV Shot - You’ll find these in every Coen movie - especially when a character is doing something weird or violent or under the influence… how better for us to engage with sometimes unlikeable people, their bizarre moves,

Insert shots / Dolly-in Shot - This is where the Coens often establish the detail of their themes - think of cutting from a wide, set-establishing shot to a close-up showing a particular detail within… forcing the viewer to notice or read something. Often this is at the same time and pace as the main character in question.

The Coen craft these shots so intentionally, we can find some distinctive ways they’re used -

Color detail - we’ve been through the palette of the Big Lebowski and its power on character and mood - but who can forget the green nail polish? It stands out because of that deliberate, lingering insert shot combined with the now somewhat nauseating green.

Circles - a close-up of something circular is a pleasing motif anywhere, and symbolic of life and the earth, but like the note left on a plate and of course the bowling ball, these frames are never just slotted in for decoration. The motif is used as a striking backdrop for a detail to expand the story or world.


An absurd image - The Coens often use an insert shot of a striking or shocking detail, which is often an absurd one. There’s grizly murders aplenty in these movies and pointing to the ridiculous and farcical provides that comedic edge. Think of the wood-chipped leg in Fargo - upside down, still with its sock on. It’s a technique they use to great effect to build the dark humor of all their stories and provide some relief to the violence within them.

Motifs & Devices

Quirky language and repeating phrases - say it often enough, and you might have yourself a catchphrase, Donny. As well as finding humorous or unusual names, the Coens also draw from their good ole American playbook of “you betcha’s” and “bona fides” - finding otherwise unnoteworthy phrases in jarring moments that make them stand out and of course, endlessly quotable. The Coens often show the paper they’re written on too in those close-ups we talked about - the notes, the crude drawings, the crumpled homework and office sundries - which leads us to…

Offices and desks - the desk is a literal barrier between characters - a symbol of how difficult, or hostile, it can be to communicate with others. Ok, often it’s a bar - but it’s always part of the scene-setting, and story-telling, like Llewyn Davis picking up his non-existent mail, not important enough for the secretary to break from her typewriter.

The Great Outdoors - More prevalent in Fargo, but you’ll see shots of wild environments and weather to get across a certain mood in every Coen Brothers movie. Roads and cars in particular are so ‘of’ their place and time that they cannot help but absorb us further into the world of the story -  in No Country for Old Men, Fargo and of course, O Brother… even The Dude’s car expands his threadbare, cigarette-butts-in-the-crevices, vintage leather seated world.



So is this the recipe for a cult movie by the Coen Brothers?

  • POV shots

  • Lingering insert shots

  • Circles

  • Quirky lingo

  • Desks & bars

  • The Great Outdoors 

Mix these together with a saturated, yet often washed-out palette and add some Kodak-esque contrast for a retro vibe. Add a touch of absurdity and/or morbid humor to taste. 


They’ve made movies that are genre-defying even when they follow a literary source. Rather, this is a playbook of attention to detail that makes their movies so re-watchable, and part of the making of any cult movie is the feeling that you can get more and more from it each time you watch. As their long-term collaborator Deakins says,  “I don’t think have a style; I have a style that suits the project I’m on.” — Roger Deakins.