Relish the Coen Brothers’ Masterful Disorder at Film Forum


In the opening scene of Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2013 film about a (fictional) folk singer circa 1961 — and the latest addition to the Criterion Collection — the title character performs a song at the Gaslight Cafe. Davis (Oscar Isaac) sits onstage, illuminated from above by a single beam of light. The camera lingers for a moment on a bearded young man in the audience; he leans forward in his chair, inert, a cigarette burning to ash between his fingers. For two minutes, time stops while Davis plays one of those traditional folk numbers whose origins are hazy. Then he steps outside and a man punches him in the face.

From New York to California, Mississippi to Minnesota, spanning genres like a Turner Classic Movies marathon, the Coen brothers have introduced us to ordinary people whose actions spin out of their control. And like so many of their films — thirteen of which will screen as part of a Film Forum series running from January 29 to February 4 — Inside Llewyn Davis eventually circles back to its opening scene. Its hero begins and ends his journey lying facedown in an alley, and in between he experiences only misery. His music is a momentary respite from the tyranny of uncertainty — the haphazard events that in the world of the Coens so often result in some comically, biblically cruel punishment. Characters like Davis are left with insoluble questions: Why has this happened to me? What does it all mean?

The Coens’ movies can drive viewers similarly mad with the search for meaning. But despite plots denser than a Sarah Palin endorsement speech, it’s a mistake to impose a grand narrative theory on their films. The forces that propel the brothers’ plots are random, not designed, and their people don’t triumph over those forces so much as wade through them, frantic for answers.

In 2009, the Coens laid out this career-long thematic obsession with a thud. A Serious Man opens with a prelude, a kind of fable. In an Eastern European shtetl, a man brings home a fellow villager, but his wife informs him that their visitor actually died three years ago; assuming him to be a dybbuk — an evil spirit, in Jewish mythology — she stabs him in the heart. Her husband believes that she has cursed the family. The rest of the film unfolds in suburban Minnesota in 1967, the site of the Coens’ own upbringing. There, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), physics professor, husband, and father of two, finds his life rapidly unraveling for reasons he cannot explain.

Larry’s friend tries to comfort him: “We’re Jews,” she says. “When we’re puzzled we have all the stories that have been handed down from people who have the same problems. Have you talked to Rabbi Nachtner?” But the rabbis can’t solve Larry’s predicament. One exclaims, bafflingly, “Things aren’t so bad — look at the parking lot, Larry!” Another tells him the meandering story of “the goy’s teeth.” But Larry doesn’t want fables; he wants answers. “Sure,” the second rabbi says, “we all want the answer.”

Are we meant to believe that the misfortunes befalling Larry Gopnik are cosmic retribution for the sins of his shtetl ancestors? Maybe. But isn’t that functionally the same as saying the events that shape a life are totally random? (Is there a reason “The Dude Abides” was a category on Jeopardy! the very day I began writing this survey? Eh, probably not.)

A Serious Man is the Coens’ most sustained treatment of the Book of Job, which poses the question, “Why do the righteous suffer?” The Book of Coen seems to answer that with a shrug and a chuckle: At the end of the film, Larry’s son meets the mystical head rabbi, who quotes from lyrics to a Jefferson Airplane song before returning his confiscated transistor radio and telling him to “Be a good boy.”

Their characters don’t triumph so much as wade through, frantic for answers.

In The Man Who Wasn’t There, released in 2001 and starring Billy Bob Thornton as small-town barber Ed Crane, everyone thinks they know exactly what’s going on. Ed dreams of opening a dry cleaning business, of helping a local girl start her music career — like so many of us, he dreams of anything other than what he already has. He tries to blackmail his wife’s lover/boss — but winds up killing him instead. When the cops finger his wife as the murderer, she assumes it’s because she was helping the deceased to “cook the books.” The dead man’s wife thinks it’s all part of a government conspiracy involving UFOs. Eventually, Ed is charged with a different murder, one he had nothing to do with. The Coens demonstrate that life can be violent and absurdly funny at the same time: “Guilty of wanting to be a dry cleaner, sure,” Ed deadpans in voiceover. “But not of murder.”

In one memorable scene, Ed’s lawyer (Tony Shalhoub) produces perhaps the most glorious alibi in film history: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. “We can’t know what really happened,” the lawyer explains, “because the more you look, the less you know. But the beauty of it is, we don’t gotta know!” This notion reappears in A Serious Man: Filling the blackboard with unintelligible scribbles, Larry turns to face his class and declares, “The uncertainty principle. It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.”

The very nature of uncertainty means we have no proof, no closure. We can take comfort in stories, but they won’t give us answers. Or we can take comfort — as Ed and Llewyn Davis and that head rabbi all do — in music: With his wife behind bars for a crime he committed, the only thing that brings Ed “some kind of peace” is listening to a teenage girl play piano.

The Coen brothers literalize the idea of music as escape in 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, set in the Depression-era Deep South. Three runaway convicts record a song to earn some much-needed cash, and its sudden popularity becomes their path to salvation. The Coens echo this — minus the salvation — in Inside Llewyn Davis, when Davis joins a pair of musicians to record a single. In both films, the songs become surprise hits to the dismay of the musicians, who opted for a lump sum rather than royalty payments. It’s an oddly specific conceit to duplicate, but it illustrates a central theme of the Coens’ work: the extent to which the consequences of our actions can slip out of our grasp and reverberate longer and louder than we ever expected.

Or not. I like to think of the Coen brothers laughing at our frenzied attempts to decode their work, because their movies seem to suggest that all of it — life, work, love, the nature of our restless striving — is a big joke. “I laugh myself sometimes,” remarks Tommy Lee Jones’s beleaguered sheriff in No Country for Old Men, recalling a particularly gruesome case. “Not a whole lot else you can do.”

‘The Coen Brothers’
January 29–February 4
Film Forum