Coen Brothers’ Shapeshifting Films
In a fractured landscape, the Coen brothers’ film creations flow and change direction like mercury. These talented artists invest significant effort in making films that defy easy classification or categorization. They avoid trying to confine them to a stance, perspective, or specific form. Initially, what Dashiell Hammet inspired as a mood piece suddenly turned into truly absurd moments. It becomes a vaudeville-inspired showstopper. Subtly as well, it becomes mystical and contemplative, eventually turning tragic. However, it circles back to something more absurd and complex, hinting at limitless creative possibilities.
For example, in 2009, they portrayed the life of middle-class Jews in the outskirts of Minneapolis in the late ’60s in A Serious Man. Throughout the film, it effortlessly and smoothly shifts its narrative tone, delving into Proustian memories full of deep affection. Then, the satirical critique crystallizes into extraordinary and poignant moments. Along the story, it urges the audience to contemplate between past Yiddish folklore and the ongoing narrative. Even seemingly relatively light and straightforward films like Burn After Reading take unexpected twists from their initial focus on satirizing Washington bureaucracy, delving into obsessions with fitness, the habits of uneducated and inarticulate Americans, the world of old men’s clubs, and homemade sexual paraphernalia. The audience exits the theater filled with surrealism and chaos when the credits roll.
The Heartfelt Recreation of the Early ’60s Folk Country Music Scene
Consider if Inside Llewyn Davis became the topic of a discussion centered on folk music and the heartfelt recreation of the early ’60s folk country music scene, adjusted to encompass the everyday challenges, twists of fate, and unexplainable shifts in demeanor and mood. In keeping with the typical style of all Coen brothers’ films, the movie resists simple nostalgia and infuses humor into its portrayal, whether on a smaller or grander scale. Llewyn, a folk singer from Queens who finds himself out of harmony with life’s joyful moments, is the central figure in this tale. For instance, consider the endlessly comical road trip from New York to Chicago, where Llewyn must endure the ceaseless ramblings of an eccentric hipster named Roland Turner. This sequence evokes memories of similar moments in Coen’s The Big Lebowski.
Llewyn initially appears at the Gaslight, an underground club permeated with the ambiance of cigarette smoke and espresso. Following his ballad, he reflects that if a song remains perpetually neither new nor old, it qualifies as a folk song. The same principle applies to folk tales, including Inside Llewyn Davis. The story orbits around Llewyn, adrift in the unforgiving New York City winter, navigating from one tiny gig to another while seeking refuge with friends whenever possible. He grapples with the loss of his musical partner, and his solo career advances sluggishly, partly due to his steadfast commitment to a one-person, one-guitar approach and an overly earnest perception of himself as an artist. His affectation nearly matches his reprehensible conduct. Llewyn is imperfect, and his self-centered roughness renders him nearly unsympathetic. There are instances where he uses profanity in the presence of his nephew, despite his sister’s objections, and his misguided artistic integrity disrupts a convivial dinner party hosted by the Gorfein family, who are gracious hosts.
Llewyn found his creative muse in Dave Van Ronk, the renowned acoustic folk singer of Greenwich Village fame, known as the Mayor of MacDougal Street. Van Ronk’s lasting impact exceeded Llewyn’s wildest expectations, and the Coen brothers’ film will likely reintroduce the singer’s music to a broader audience. However, Inside Llewyn Davis remains in the limelight. Interestingly, the film’s poster pays tribute to the 1963 release, Inside Dave Van Ronk, although the resemblances may not be immediately apparent. Llewyn stands out as a distinct creation of the Coen brothers. On a different note, the Coen family’s narrative draws inspiration from Bob Dylan, or more precisely, Dylan embodies what Llewyn could have become with more talent and fewer obstacles. Dylan also emerged from the Greenwich folk scene and shares a common thread with the Coen family as a Minnesota-born Jewish artist whose work is enigmatic yet deserving of exploration. Their art mirrors their surroundings while simultaneously achieving complete originality.
Beyond Folk Music and Politics
Immersed in the Greenwich Village ambiance, Inside Llewyn Davis is not solely about folk music or the political context of the 1960s. Instead, it is one of the Coen brothers’ reflections on the unfortunate individual who shapes their bleak fate. Throughout the film, Llewyn is accompanied by a lively orange cat, and the cat’s destiny may spark debates among certain animal lovers in the audience. He carries the cat with him as if it were a loyal companion, but this loyalty proves illusory when the cat escapes. This sense of false loyalty extends to his friends as well. His friend Jean compares him to a foolish King Midas, where everything he touches turns rubbish. Llewyn may have impregnated Jean, and while the pregnancy could also be attributed to her husband and fellow singer Jim, the mere possibility that it is Llewyn’s is enough to drive her to seek an abortion. She does not argue; it has happened to other women before. If Llewyn has a life purpose, it is not children—it is the world of show business.
When Joseph Campbell outlined the stages of the Hero’s Journey, he had figures like Odysseus, Jesus, and Siegfried in mind, not folk singers searching for a place to sleep at night. For those who prefer everything neatly categorized and conforming to a universal framework, it is tempting to view every Coen narrative as a satire of Campbell’s monomyth. Indeed, O Brother, Where Art Thou?—inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey—and Inside Llewyn Davis, with its wandering cat named Ulysses, invite such interpretations. However, this parodic approach merely establishes the mood. It is a means to deflate grandeur, to bring us down from the exalted realms of The Nibelungenlied and The Saga of the Volsungs, and place us alongside chain gangs in the Deep South in the late 1920s or on a Minnesota highway in 1987. The Coen family’s world is one of everyday heroes and scoundrels, a world inhabited by ordinary people like us, as well as the peculiar individuals we encounter—ordinary people trying to make sense of life as it unfolds, with neither the time nor the means to transform into Transformative Figures of Our Era.
Tragic Ballads and Llewyn’s Struggle for Success
Oscar Isaac delivers a brilliant performance, embodying Llewyn and his guitar, demanding him to sing tragic ballads like Hang Me, Oh Hang Me and Shoals of Herring. He does this with enough talent to symbolize the character’s struggle toward success as a tragic representation of the human condition. Collaborator and music supervisor for the Coens, T Bone Burnett, crafted the best soundtrack of 2013, featuring songs that resonate with poignant lyrics reflecting the characters and the era. Each song is performed by the actor who sang it in the film. Production designer Jess Gonchor adeptly recreates the atmosphere of Greenwich Village, Queens, and Chicago from that period, paying meticulous attention to the details of the 1960s setting. While the Coen brothers’ long-time cinematographer, Roger Deakins, is not leading in this regard, Bruno Delbonnel—known for Amélie—achieves an extraordinary balance between realism and the soft mist enveloping the somewhat melancholic Llewyn.
These questions serve as powerful triggers in Coen brothers’ films, and the events and shifts in their narratives – chance encounters, random incidents, pivotal choices, dreams, and visions – represent a series of potential responses that consistently lead to enigmas before circling back to the same questions. Like Frances McDormand’s Marge, Tommy Lee Jones’s Ed Tom, and all the Coen brothers’ other protagonists, Llewyn seeks signs and guidance from the world. The allure of Coen films, in general, and Inside Llewyn Davis, in particular, lies in this aspect. They are pursuing clarity results in the hero’s meticulous examination of everything encountered, heightening our attention to detail. Consequently, every glimmer, every surface, and every object emits its unique mystery and carries significant weight. Inside Llewyn Davis, with its mottled windows and melancholic journeys through cold streets and up creaky staircases, the presence of progressive sociology professors adorning their walls with African art and their equally kind-hearted wives preparing their “famous moussaka,” demonstrates noble patience and eternal waiting, accompanied by abrupt harsh judgments leading to acts of kindness and forgiveness, ultimately crafting a world of indescribable beauty. This beauty is ever-present and accessible, whether acknowledged by Llewyn at his lowest or recognized by us in solitude. It can be discovered in the morning stillness at Jim and Jean’s apartment when Llewyn awakens at the faithful feet of Troy Nelson, dressed in military uniform and ready to board the bus back to Fort Dix, akin to the real-life inspiration, Tom Paxton. It can be observed in glimpses of Akron’s light during the return journey from Chicago and in the winter air gently caressing Jean Mulligan on a cold morning in Washington Square, all exquisitely captured by cinematographer Delbonnel. Most importantly, this beauty finds its focal point in the music.
In their films, the Coen brothers favor exploring themes of failure over success, underdogs rather than winners, and folly instead of wisdom. These movies grapple with unresolved existential questions and the absurdity of life’s meaning, urging their audiences to contemplate the significance of it all, even while thoroughly entertained. Inside Llewyn Davis adheres to a narrative structure reminiscent of A Serious Man, where the protagonist, portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg, poses endless questions but receives unclear, nonsensical, or highly tragic answers. Alternatively, the film can be likened to the 1991 Palme d’Or winner, Barton Fink, where John Turturro plays a successful playwright plagued by writer’s block when attempting to become a Hollywood screenwriter. Together, these three films constitute a thematic trilogy about professionals who, despite their expertise, are tormented by the futile search for meaning in an existentially empty world.
Coen Brothers’ Sensitivity to Music in Filmmaking
While the Coen brothers are widely known for their comedy, they also demonstrate a profound sensitivity to music in their filmmaking. Like Martin Scorsese and other directors, they meticulously select pop music soundtracks closely intertwined with the atmosphere and themes of their films, as seen in The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man. Each Coen film immerses itself in the music of a specific American vernacular, reflecting the unique linguistic qualities of the setting and period, thereby adding depth to their storytelling. In some instances, such as No Country for Old Men, music is absent from the soundtrack, emphasizing the film’s tense silence. The Coen brothers’ fruitful collaborations with musicians, particularly Carter Burwell and T Bone Burnett, have significantly enriched the musical dimension of their films, especially in Inside Llewyn Davis.
The film features a recurring scene at the beginning and end, where a bartender directs Llewyn to meet a “friend” in an alley behind the Gaslight club. There, a hoarse-voiced Southern patron punches and kicks Llewyn, punishing him for mocking the performers on stage. This sequence, notable for Llewyn’s lack of tolerance and its cyclical nature, encapsulates the mystique of the Coen brothers’ storytelling approach. Initially, Llewyn appears to be a random victim of violence, but in the second occurrence, it becomes a justified consequence—a part of his self-inflicted punishment cycle. Inside Llewyn Davis explores this recurring motif, enabling the viewers to contemplate and reassess the character as they become more acquainted with his repetitive actions. While Llewyn may not be a likable character, the film helps us understand his aspirations and failures, and establishes a deep connection to his melancholic story.
Whenever the characters in the film pick up their musical instruments and sing, time undergoes a remarkable transformation, becoming poetic and joyful for both the characters and the audience. The live performances bring an authentic and captivating quality to Isaac’s youthful and charming portrayal of Llewyn, concealed beneath the surface.
Music as Metamorphosis
Each time he performs these traditional songs, some of which have evolved over many decades, he experiences a metamorphosis into a liberated spirit. Consider, for instance, the film’s opening song, Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, sung and played beautifully by Isaac. Although first recorded in the 1930s, this song is believed to have its origins in the 1870s as a tribute to a condemned prisoner en route to the gallows in the frontier town of Fort Smith, Arkansas. There, he faced the infamous “hanging judge” Isaac C. Parker, a character featured in Charles Portis’s novel True Grit and both film adaptations, the second of which was directed by the Coens.
Another example is Green, Green Rocky Road, a song possessing the weathered beauty of an old pine knot. Officially credited to Len Chandler and Robert Kaufman, it drew inspiration from the children’s song Hooka Tooka Soda Cracka and gained fame through generations of folk singers, including Van Ronk, who was humorously dubbed a “folk nazi” by Chandler and whose renowned rendition concludes the film. Then there is Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song), recorded by Llewyn and his former partner, Mike, on their sole album. This song originated in 1908 in a migrant workers’ camp on the Brazos River, sung by a Mississippi prostitute named Dink to John Lomax, father of Alan. Dink was widely recommended as a knowledgeable source for all songs. It embodies plain American language in all its splendor, a profound and poignant sorrow that, through song, transforms into a form of affirmation. While it is a tattered, bloodied banner of freedom planted in the harsh, uncertain soil of doubt and ambiguity, it is a marvel of the music and the film that encompasses it.
- Buckwalter, I. (2013). A Spinner Of Sad Songs, Struggling To Sing Past The Gloom. NPR.
- Jones, K. (2016). Inside Llewyn Davis: The Sound of Music. Current | The Criterion Collection.
- Marcus, G. (2014). Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Artforum International.
- Roberts, R. (2013). The Coens’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ aims to keep 1960s folk scene real. Los Angeles Times.
- Smith, A. J. (2014). Music of the Movies: The Coen Brothers. One Room With A View.