Like quicksilver in a nest of cracks, the films of Joel and Ethan Coen flow and reverse course at speeds too fast for the mind to track. These artists put a lot of energy into creating movies that can be neither cornered nor pinned down, and that are impossible to file under this or that form, outlook, or stance. What begins as a Dashiell Hammett–inspired mood piece (Miller’s Crossing, 1990) suddenly explodes into passages of eye-popping absurdism, which give way to vaudeville-inspired showstoppers, which imperceptibly transform into passages of awed mystical contemplation, which shade into tragedy and then back again to the hard-boiled, the absurdist—and the suggestion of endlessness. A portrait of late-sixties middle-class Jewish life in the Minneapolis suburbs (A Serious Man, 2009) keeps shifting registers—without apparent effort and so deftly—from the lovingly Proustian to the savagely satirical to the ineffably sad and strange, and throughout we are left to consider the relationship of the action to the Yiddish “folktale” that precedes it. The seemingly straightforward and comparatively lite Burn After Reading (2008) takes so many unexpected turns away from the satire of Washington bureaucratic culture it appears to be—into obsessions with fitness, the oddness of being a tongue-tied and uneducated American, the greater oddness of old-boy men’s club culture and home-manufactured sexual paraphernalia—that by the time you come out of the film, your head is spinning like a gyroscope.
And take Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), the film under consideration here. This “folk musical,” this “loving re-creation” of the pre-singer-songwriter Greenwich Village music scene of the early sixties, is so finely tuned to daily setbacks and chance reversals and undefinable singularities of mood and behavior that the coherence of straight nostalgia is quickly shattered. Needless to say, it’s very funny—every film in the Coen catalog is a comedy to a greater (Intolerable Cruelty, 2003) or lesser (No Country for Old Men, 2007) degree. There are hilarious passages in this story of a folksinger from Queens who finds himself off the beat of life. For instance, the endless car ride from New York to Chicago, during the length of which Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) has to endure the mellifluous, acid-tongued verbal stylings of a hipster braggart in the backseat named Roland Turner (John Goodman), a deposed king of nothing who blathers on and on and on about Belgian clay, Santeria, and a bad cheese sandwich he once ate at the High Spot in Seattle. The Coens have been tagged, correctly, as blackhearted portraitists because of passages like this one, which assumes its own proud place alongside another Goodman aria, the argument about Shabbas in 1998’s The Big Lebowski (“I’m as Jewish as fucking Tevye!”), and the hilarious interchanges between Michael Stuhlbarg’s perplexed and pained physics professor Larry Gopnik and Fred Melamed’s patronizingly reasonable Sy Ableman in A Serious Man.
But to fixate on the cruelty of the Coens’ particular approach to comedy (and to assume that this cruelty resides with the filmmakers, as opposed to the characters or life itself) is to ignore the bursts of tenderness and exuberance that suddenly and unexpectedly warm the action in their films like drug rushes. In Inside Llewyn Davis, I’m thinking of the mysterious and oddly poignant sight of Roland hobbling with his carved cane from the car to the gas station men’s room and back again, or the oddly dissociated devotions of his tightly wound “valet,” Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund): the suggested relationship, defined with the greatest economy, opens the way to a vast realm of experience beyond the confines of the story. The Coens’ comedy is apt to swerve or pivot or shade into increasingly darker perplexities, intimations of the uncanny, or sheer bottomless terror in the face of existence, thus temporarily leaving humor in the rear distance. So the comedy of these scenes is counterpointed by the beautifully austere expanses of landscape out the window and the hypnotic rhythm of wheels hitting the seams in the asphalt at fifty miles per hour—da-dum da-dum da-dum. And again, on the drive back, there’s the dissolution of perspective and reason by the oncoming snow in the headlights, an invitation to nothingness.
Hitching rides from New York to Chicago; keeping enough change in your pocket to make calls from pay phones; making the rounds of friends and acquaintances living in tenement walk-ups, all with the same makeshift end table next to the same beat-up sofa by the same window looking out on the same fire escape—Inside Llewyn Davis is a story whose every particular is firmly rooted in the early sixties in general, and in the West Village in particular. The Coens have always been zealous excavators of the unheralded or bypassed corners of American life, from late-forties Northern California suburbia to the folkways of the modern American Midwest. They are connoisseurs of the spaces between and the moments before and after or just on the edges of historical milestones. And as storytellers, they seem to begin, gleefully, with a self-imposed challenge: Who is the least likely hero-on-a-quest on whose shoulders we can park an entire movie? How about a barber with dreams of investing in the dry cleaning business? Or a middle-aged gym attendant trying to raise enough money for some liposuction? Or, in the case of this movie, a Dave Van Ronk–styled pre-Dylan folksinger who needs to pay for his married lover’s abortion.
But wait a minute—hero? On a quest? When Joseph Campbell enumerated the stages of the Hero’s Journey, he had Odysseus, Jesus, and Siegfried in mind, not a folksinger in search of a couch for the night. If you’re the kind of person who likes to see everything wrapped up in neat categories and one-size-fits-all superstructures, then you might find yourself thinking of every Coen narrative as a parody of Campbell’s monomyth. And, of course, 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? (“Based upon The Odyssey by Homer”) and Inside Llewyn Davis, with its wandering cat named Ulysses, invite such an interpretation. But the parodic gesture merely sets the tone. It’s a way of letting the air out of the balloon, taking us down below the lofty heights of The Nibelungenlied and The Saga of the Volsungs and depositing us alongside a chain gang in the Deep South in the late twenties or on a highway outside Brainerd, Minnesota, in 1987. The world of the Coens is the world of everyday heroes and scoundrels, of you and me and the stranger sitting across from us, the ordinary citizens trying to make sense of life as we live it, who have neither the time nor the wherewithal to develop into the Transformative Figures of Our Age.
The Hero’s Quest is always shadowed by a series of questions. For Llewyn, whose musical partner has recently thrown himself off of the George Washington Bridge and who is in love with Jean (Carey Mulligan), the wife of his good friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), the first question is: Since I was once one of two, am I now a half or a whole? And then, as he finds himself alternately berated, dismissed, harangued, ripped off, and punched out, a greater question: Is it just me, or is it everybody else? And beyond that: Why me? And then the great overriding question, silently posed by every Coen hero, from John Turturro’s Barton Fink to Gabriel Byrne’s Irish mob fixer in Miller’s Crossing to Jeff Bridges’s Lebowski to Stuhlbarg’s Larry to Isaac’s Llewyn: What is this thing, alternately referred to as life, reality, and the world?
These questions are the great catalyzing agents of the Coens’ movies, and the events and turns in their narratives—chance encounters, random occurrences, decisive actions, dreams, visions—comprise a series of possible answers that always lead to mysteries and then back again to the same questions. Llewyn, like Frances McDormand’s Marge and Tommy Lee Jones’s Ed Tom and all the other Coen heroes, is on the lookout for signs and directives from the world, and I think that the magic of the later films in general and Inside Llewyn Davis in particular lies here. The search for clarity leads to the hero’s careful scrutiny of everything in his or her path, which in turn intensifies our attention to each detail; as a consequence, every pocket of light, every surface, and every object sings its own mystery and becomes supercharged. Inside Llewyn Davis’s world of soot-speckled windows and miserable treks through cold streets and up and down worn stairways, of kindly progressive sociology professors with African art on their walls, whose equally kindly wives whip up their “famous moussaka” for friends, of noble forbearance and endless waiting and harsh judgments that suddenly give way to acts of generosity and forgiveness, is finally one of ineffable beauty. That beauty is always present and accessible, whether it is noted by Llewyn at his most miserable or by us alone. It is to be found in the early morning quiet of Jim and Jean’s apartment as Llewyn wakes up at the feet of Stark Sands’s fiercely composed Troy Nelson, dressed in his army fatigues and getting ready to catch the bus back to Fort Dix, just like his real-life inspiration, Tom Paxton; in the lights of Akron glimpsed on the drive back from Chicago; in the winter air bathing the face of Mulligan’s Jean on a cold morning in Washington Square, rendered so beautifully by director of photography Bruno Delbonnel. And that beauty is concentrated, above all, in the music.
That the Coen brothers are comic artists is lost on no one, but I think of them equally as musical filmmakers. Like Martin Scorsese and the many directors who have come after him, the Coens make films with carefully curated pop-music soundtracks (The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man) tied not only to the ambience but also the thematic drive of the works. Each of the Coens’ movies is “set” to the music of a particular variety of American speech: the ornate, immigrant-tinged, hard-boiled argot of Miller’s Crossing; the “upbeat,” emotionally oblique midwestern vernacular of Fargo; the floating, discordant expressions of Bush I–era lostness in The Big Lebowski. Sometimes, as in No Country for Old Men, the music is in the soundtrack itself, a bed of majestic and unsettling quiet over which laconic Texan exclamations, metal clicking and scraping against metal, footsteps on creaking wooden floors, and chugging engines flow. Two of the Coens’ most fruitful creative partnerships have been with musicians: Carter Burwell, who began with them on Blood Simple (1984)and has worked on every single film thereafter, with the exception of Inside Llewyn Davis; and T Bone Burnett, with whom they have made three films—O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers (2004), and Inside Llewyn Davis—in which traditional American folk songs are not simply celebrated but given a prominence of place even greater than that enjoyed by the songs in Arthur Freed’s musicals. The music played and sung and heard in those three films becomes a powerful force in the action itself, and in Inside Llewyn Davis most of all.
Whenever the characters in this film pick up their instruments and sing, their sense of time, and ours, shifts from the numbingly horizontal to the poetically and ecstatically vertical—just as it apparently did for the singer-actors themselves, whose performances were all recorded live. Llewyn, who expects discomfort and low-boiling aggression at every turn, who is always at the ready with caustic irony or disdain—the beauty of Oscar Isaac’s performance lies in the boyish warmth just beneath the surface of the drawling put-downs and outraged explosions—becomes a free man whenever he plays and sings these traditional songs, revised over decades and sometimes centuries. For instance, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” the first song in the movie, sung and played so beautifully by Isaac. The song was recorded for the first time in the thirties but is said to have originated in the 1870s as a tribute to a prisoner on his way to the gallows (it’s not the hanging that he minds, but “the laying in the grave so long”) in the frontier town of Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he was condemned by the famous “hanging judge” Isaac C. Parker—Parker figures as a character in Charles Portis’s novel True Grit and in both of its film adaptations, the second of which was directed by the Coens. Or “Green, Green Rocky Road,” a song with the gnarled beauty of an old pine notch, officially written by Len Chandler and Robert Kaufman, derived from the children’s song “Hooka Tooka Soda Cracka” and made famous by generations of folksingers. That includes Van Ronk (characterized by Chandler as a “folk nazi”), whose famous rendition closes the film. Or “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” recorded by Llewyn and his lost partner, Mike, on their one album and originally sung to John Lomax, father of Alan, in 1908 in a migrant workers’ camp on the Brazos River by a Mississippi prostitute named Dink. “Ask for Dink,” everyone told Lomax, “she knows all the songs.” Like this one about a woman pining for the father of her unborn child, a man who was long and tall and moved his body like a cannonball and is now gone forever. “If I had wings like Noah’s dove / I’d fly up the river to the one I love” . . . Plain American language in all its glory, a deep and aching sadness transfigured by song into what can only be called affirmation, a tattered, bloody flag of freedom planted in the ground of doubt, cruelty, and indeterminacy. That’s the wonder of this music and the movie that holds it.