Accept The Mystery: The Brilliance Of The Coen Bros' Character Studies

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Joel and Ethan Coen have been making movies long enough now that it's possible for fans not just to have a favorite film of theirs but a favorite type of film. Perhaps you love their loopy comedies: The Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski. Maybe you're partial to their heist-gone-wrong thrillers: Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple.


But as the Coens' career approaches the 30-year mark, I find myself being drawn more and more to another, perhaps less popular subsection of their movies. They're not as easy to classify as the others, but they include Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There, and A Serious Man: character studies of unlucky and/or tormented people coming as they approach some sort of personal reckoning. This bloc of films has laughs and the occasional heist-gone-wrong scheme, too, but they cut deeper and, frankly, are a lot stranger than the Coens' other movies. There's something unresolved about these movies, as if the brothers are wrestling with things they can't quite reconcile. I wouldn't go so far as to say these movies are more personal for them, but they definitely are for me. I watch them and when they're over, they don't go away. They eat at me in a way that's more unsettling than a Blood Simple or a No Country for Old Men.

The latest in this series of character-study movies is the best of the bunch. At first glance, Inside Llewyn Davis is reminiscent of A Serious Man: In both films, a regular guy is beset by troubles all around him, leading him to wonder if he's cursed. (There's a sense with both men that the gods—or God, in the case of A Serious Man—have made it their mission to conspire against them.) But Inside Llewyn Davis also echoes Barton Fink, which was about a pompous East Coast playwright whose trip to Hollywood leads to murder, a psychic breakdown, and, worst of all, writer's block. Inside Llewyn Davis is also about the perils of an artist—namely, folksinger Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who's making his way in New York in 1961—but it's far less caustic in its treatment than Barton Fink. Watching Inside Llewyn Davis—and I've seen it three times now—I'm struck by the fact that it combines and refines all of the Coens' previous thematic interests and tones. It has the measured, stripped-down stateliness of No Country for Old Men, the evocative period detail of O Brother, the deep melancholy of The Man Who Wasn't There, and the "what does it all mean?" existential mystery of A Serious Man. It doesn't have the super-broad side characters that their earlier films possessed, but I don't find myself missing that so much.

Inside Llewyn Davis spans a few days in the life of Davis as he tries to find some success as a solo act in the rising East Coast folk scene. There's less of a straightforward narrative here than an odyssey of sorts: Davis encounters people along the way, like his fellow folk artists (played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), jaded traveling musicians (John Goodman), and a respected veteran talent agent (F. Murray Abraham) who could launch his career. There aren't plot twists in the classic Coen tradition, but there are small surprises throughout—callbacks to previous conversations, a slow parceling out of some of Davis's backstory. (This article is spoiler-free, but you might want to avoid any other pieces about the movie before you get to see it yourself. With a film as delicate as this, the surprises are worth preserving.)

For much of the first decade of their career, the Coens specialized in densely plotted, sometimes ingenious genre movies. Interestingly, the brothers' difficulty while writing their somber gangster picture Miller's Crossing helped inspire them to come up with a story about a blocked writer that became Barton Fink, ushering in a new type of film for them. Since then, they've continued to play around with genres and construct zig-zagging stories, but in recent years they've seemed less enamored with plot as they are with character and atmosphere. After the back-to-back commercial and critical disappointment of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, the Coens appear to have refocused themselves on not just making meticulously constructed movies—their films always look and sound amazing—but on reaching for some sort of deeper meaning in their movies, without sacrificing their sense of humor or their set pieces.

In a way, this shift was put into motion by the movie that preceded those twin duds, The Man Who Wasn't There, a noir that had a busy plot involving blackmail and murder but didn't seem all that concerned with those machinations. Instead, the movie was all about its mysterious main character (played brilliantly by Billy Bob Thornton) who seemed to be vanishing within himself. (Even his hard-boiled voiceover revealed nothing about his inner life.) It was a character-study film like Barton Fink, but it elicited reactions rarely experienced in a Coens film: sadness, uncertainty, a troubling sense of lingering unease. If the Coens were once criticized for seeming like smarty-pants showoffs—their style supposedly grander than their substance—The Man Who Wasn't There quashed that opinion, suggesting the soul of guys who were artists all along. I couldn't tell you a thing about what happens in The Man Who Wasn't There, but I still remember how melancholy the whole thing was, how it asked what becomes of all the ordinary folks (like us) who barely register in the grand scheme of existence. The film's gorgeous black-and-white imagery only partly mitigated the great sense of spiritual crisis that hummed through Thornton's reserved performance.

That quality of existential malaise is even stronger in A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis, which isn't to say that these movies aren't really entertaining and funny as well. But like The Man Who Wasn't There and Barton Fink, they seem to operate more by intuition than by plot demands. They wander freely, watching as their characters stumble from one situation to another while looking for an ineffable sense of contentment that's never going to come. Part of the reason they won't find it is because they're searching for the same unattainable answers we all are: Barton wants his work to give his life meaning; Thornton's barber Ed wants to find a purpose; A Serious Man's Larry tries to be a good person but doesn't understand why God has abandoned him; and Llewyn Davis wants to do the one thing he loves but is realizing that the world doesn't necessarily care if he does it or not. These are life's Big Mysteries, and it's notable that none of these movies have concrete or happy endings.


A Serious Man may have been inspired by the Coen brothers' Jewish Midwestern upbringing, but their films on the whole don't feel "confessional" or even "obsessive" in the ways that other major directors' are. (You don't watch their films thinking that Joel and Ethan are trying to exorcise great angst—even their most somber movies, like Inside Llewyn Davis, have a lightness to them.) And yet, there's something incredibly profound about these character-study films in the way they ask eternal questions within entertaining packages. (For all of Inside Llewyn Davis's painful musings about how luck plays a part in success, it can also be a rollicking musical.) These films have ambiguity in them that's rare—a willingness to sympathize with the characters' plight while at the same time remain clear-eyed about their failings. Davis is a talented musician who takes his art very seriously, but does he deserve a career? Inside Llewyn Davis never answers that question, letting it dangle in the air long after the film is over. Because, really, there is no answer—nor to the other questions the Coens have asked in these films.

It would be easy to say that the Coens have "matured" as they've gotten older, a lazy critical assessment considering that their first film, Blood Simple, is still one of their best—a confident, dark, mature crime thriller. In reality, what's happened is that the brothers have shifted away from poking fun at their characters' foibles and decided that our shared faults are more fascinating. And that's why I can't stop watching Inside Llewyn Davis. I'm not an artist like Davis is, but I feel as if I'm grappling with the same issues that he is—as are Barton and Ed and Larry. In A Serious Man, a character blackmailing Larry advises him that he should "accept the mystery" of life. Larry's problem is he can't. I'm not sure any of us can. And nobody in film is making that predicament as moving and as funny as the Coen brothers are.


Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.