Why are the Coen brothers so successful? Having co-written and directed films like “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski,” and “No Country for Old Men,” they may be the most celebrated filmmakers of their time, and their obvious technical mastery is only part of the reason.
By Noah Gittell
Why are the Coen brothers so successful? Having co-written and directed films like “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski,” and “No Country for Old Men,” they may be the most celebrated filmmakers of their time, and their obvious technical mastery is only part of the reason. One reason we relate so deeply to their work is that their films are, in the end, about justice. Their heroes (or anti-heroes) are all fighting for the same simple thing: fair treatment in an unfair world. Jerry Lundegaard (“Fargo”) only wanted to get out from under his father-in-law’s thumb. Larry Gopnik (“A Serious Man”) just wanted to keep his family together and get a few answers from the big man upstairs. The Dude (“The Big Lebowski”) just wanted his rug back. These characters are not unreasonable people who want more than they deserve; their only mistake is thinking that the world owes them a fair shake.
In the Coen brothers’ new film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the eponymous hero (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer, singing about soulful justice but not experiencing it. All Llewyn wants is to make a living off of the one thing – singing and playing guitar — he does undeniably well. But it has not worked out that way, and Llewyn’s life is veering dangerously close to vagrancy. He has no permanent residence, instead moving between the Manhattan apartments of friends and hangers-on who he continuously disappoints with his rude and haughty behavior. He is cynical and prideful, disparaging of anyone who doesn’t commit fully to their art, which leaves pop folk singers like Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), the latter of whom might be carrying his child, vulnerable to his worst insults. The mundane horror of Llewyn’s life is that he needs the generosity of these lower life forms to survive, and so loathes his very existence.
Unlike those other Coen protagonists, we actually find out quite a lot about what makes Llewyn tick and what has informed his dour worldview. It’s not just the solitary genius thing; he has lost his former music partner to suicide, and he’s afraid of what this might portend for his future. The question that hangs over his every waking moment is: Can I make it as a solo act? The answer applies not just to his music but also to his life.
The film offers him several opportunities to find a partner – he receives more kindness than he deserves from women he has dated, men he has cuckolded, and random associates who he resents for liking him – but he pushes them all away. As a result, the film mostly belongs to Llewyn himself, and it rises and falls with his mood. Since he is miserable for so much of the film, the experience of watching it – while almost always edifying – is not entirely enjoyable.
Only when he sings – and the film, mercifully, lets him sing often – does he, and the film really come alive. His songs are peppered throughout the film, and each one reveals more about his character. To put it another way, Llewyn keeps everyone at arm’s length, including us. But when he sings, he shares himself with the audience in a way that few Coen brothers heroes have ever done.
If there is one defining moment in Llewyn’s life, it comes when he auditions for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), who runs the biggest folk club in Chicago, possibly the country. At the end of a sad, soulful ballad about a queen who dies in childbirth, Llewyn lets his arms down and sings the final verse a cappella, unshielded by artifice or philosophy. It is as close as he ever gets to an honest moment, and it recedes as quickly as it arrives. That he got there at all in a world so cold, hard, and unfair qualifies as something close to a happy ending.
My Rating: See it in the Theater