The Coen Brothers Could Be Making the Darkest Ancient Rome Epic Ever

Joel & Ethan CoenFocus Features via Everett Collection

Even before Inside Llewyn Davis has yet to open wide (though those who have seen it seem to love it), the Coen Brothers are ready to move on, already talking up their next big idea. And in a new interview with The Associated Press, they seem almost giddy at the prospect of getting away with it — an Ancient Rome film. “It’s like: Would [we] ever do a sandal movie?” Joel says. And their answer was an immediate “yes.” Their projects have fallen by the wayside before, but this time, it seems like they’re purposely leading themselves to a challenge. 

The fact that they call it a “sandal movie” — which calls to mind old Cinerama epics like The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. While the Coens are bold visualists, they tend to work on a smaller scale, whereas those old films maximized their scope, shooting huge crowds filled with hundreds of extras and capturing the vastness of the desert landscape and characters shot to appear larger than life. Most of these films played on ancient tales or Biblical characters, which could be fantastic to se the Coens really sink into. They say it will take place in Ancient Rome, which also opens it up to the brutal world of the Roman pantheon and the political follies of many a Cesar. Imagine the Coens taking on a project about Emperor Nero.

This time, they don’t want to pull any punches — not like that schlockfest, A Serious Man. That film was probably the Coens’ most intimate and existential to date, but they laugh it off now as immature. “We hadn’t grown up […] In that respect, OK, we have matured. We’re ready to answer the big questions now.” If that film, which posits life as, essentially, an unsolveable riddle of despair, is what they consider “chickening out,” then there are some tough revelations ahead for those of us in the audience during this new film. 

If there’s anyone who can convince the studios to invest in an epic that will psychologically devestate viewers, it’s the Coens, who have played bait-and-switch with genres before, from The Big Lebowski‘s stoner comedy actually taking form as a neo-noir to No Country For Old Men never delivering on its Western roots and instead settling into a grim but quiet climax. That comes as exciting news, especially since Aronofsky’s Noah looks like (or at the very least, is being marketed as) more of an action drama than a probing character study or rumination on religion and spirituality. And with the exception of Barton Fink, they haven’t explored much non-literal storytelling or usage of dream scenes, which could be a useful device in this bold, question-answering epic they’re planning. 

Only one thing is clear: this will be a film in the serious mold, not the madcap comedic one. Though you never really know — Burn After Reading is far more nihilistic and Fargo far more hilarious and humanist than they seem! So, amended: nothing is clear. But if the Coens are behind it, there will certainly be reason to watch it.