Spoilers.

This is a difficult movie. I laughed pretty hard through a lot of it, except where I was wincing. Sympathetic wincing, not angry wincing. The Coens are not in the business of making movies that are easy to figure out, and they don’t do open access. This is like that.

A lot of the criticism of this movie revolves around how unlikeable the characters are. Filmspotting talked about the Coen tendency to mock stupid characters. There’s no doubt that most of the protagonists are dumb and/or cold and/or malicious, but I don’t think I can write the movie off as an exercise in mockery.

Frances McDormand and, oddly, George Clooney saved it from that. Clooney’s performance is really way overmannered — for most of the movie. After sleeping on it for a couple of days, though, I’ve come around to thinking that was purposeful. Clooney isn’t a great actor, but he’s a smart actor, and he can do subtle. Watch what he does with the character after he kills Brad Pitt. I think what we’re seeing is someone who’s overacting because the character overacts. The scene where he calls his wife and begs her to come home? That’s someone stripped of his pretensions, and I think Clooney played it perfectly. Not to mention the symbolism of destroying his own phallic substitute sex toy; he’s destroying his own facade right there, poor guy.

His earlier lines about his quick reactions and his, ha ha, “I’ve never discharged a firearm” are the set up. On first glance, that’s part of the fakery. Those are his lines which he uses to get laid. But the Pitt death shows us a) that he does have really good reflexes and b) that he really hasn’t fired his gun in anger before. That’s the hook demonstrating that there’s a person underneath it all.

McDormand’s role is less complex. It wasn’t hard at all for me to sympathize with her. Yeah, she does horribly stupid things, but she’s intensely lonely. Richard Jenkins humanizes her in a wonderful performance by letting us see why someone would love her. To a degree, she’s a monster — but with someone as decent as Jenkins emotionally involved with her, you can’t write her off as nothing but monstrosity.

So I do wind up — not liking them, but at least wishing them redemption. The arc of the movie brings them together, then thrusts them apart. They’re definitely the centerpiece. And in the end, of course, they’re the protagonists who get out of it all alive. If not happy.

With that in mind, it’s another tragedy. It’s just that the Coens have no scruples about tragic movies overlaid with brutal humor.