Longevity is a rare thing in the motion picture business, but what makes the Coen Brothers 30 year career truly remarkable is the consistent quality of their work. Co-writing, editing, directing and producing nearly all of their films, the Coens have developed an instantly recognisable odd-ball aesthetic that seems as much at home in the labyrinthine plots of their crime films as it does in their comedies.
It’s perhaps to be expected that if you stick around as long as they have, people will begin to see recurring themes in your work. I’d argue that this is probably true of all creative artists, and that even the recognised masters of their craft are one trick ponies of a sort: consciously or unconsciously reworking the same themes, returning to the same places, people or periods throughout their careers. This is certainly true of the Coen’s work, whose films have (by and large) focussed on protagonists beset by self-inflicted tribulation usually brought about through their own naiveté or ignorance of the forces pitted against them. Think of H.I. and Ed, the childless couple from Raising Arizona who kidnap, loose and then try to recapture a new born baby, unaware that its millionaire father has set a maniacal bounty hunter on their trail. Or Tom Reagan, the protagonist of Miller’s Crossing who naively spares the life of a gangster he’s sent to kill and unwittingly sets himself up to be blackmailed by that very man. Consider too Norville Barnes from the Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, Marge Gunderson from Fargo, The Dude from The Big Lebowski, Llewellyn Moss from No Country for Old Men – each in their own way repeats this pattern, leading themselves step by step towards greater danger; every plot twist by degrees more zany or thrilling depending on the genre.
It’s classic screenplay structure. But then the Coens’ catalogue is steeped in classic genre conventions: kidnappings, chases, femme fatales, double crossings. This affinity for the tropes of classic cinema is also evident in their choice of genre (screwball comedy, noir, western), the period setting for their films and the material they’ve remade (The Ladykillers, The Man Who Wasn’t There, True Grit). But the Coens have also drawn inspiration from literary sources over the years. In particular, Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey – about Odysseus’ 10 year journey back home to reclaim his place as King of Ithaca – stands outs as key to understanding the Coen’s most recent work, Inside Llewyn Davis.
Like Odysseus, Llewyn was once a sea-farer. The son of a merchant mariner, he’s left behind his father’s profession to pursue his love of music and finds some early success as one half of a duo on the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk music scene. Since his partner’s unexplained suicide, however, money has dried up and Llewyn has been adrift – lost as Homer was at sea – wandering from sofa to sofa through the snow covered streets of lower Manhattan. That wintry Village mileu – immortalised on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – immediately suggests the sullen and broody stasis that threatens to overpower Llewyn if he isn’t able to regain his sense of direction. For the moment though, like Odysseus and Dylan’s Rolling Stone, there is no direction home. And it is here that his Odyssey begins.
One of the film’s triumphs is that it takes us inside Llewyn Davis by means of his songs. Unusually, we are shown Llewyn’s live performances in full. The Coen’s excel at creating the atmosphere of the times: ernest young men and women disillusioned by their parent’s conservatism and hypocrisy, gathering together in clubs like The Gaslight Cafe and Gate of Horn (both of which feature in the film) to reclaim a sense of meaning and purpose through traditional folk songs. In this liberal, egalitarian world, the folk singer fashions the crowd’s dreams; dreams that pass (as Penelope says in The Odyssey) ‘through the gate of polished horn’, bringing true fulfilment. But for Llewyn, whose talent is undeniable and uncompromising, his dreams of fame and success are more like the ones that pass through Penelope’s “gates of sawn ivory”: “shadowy dreams” that “deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment.” It would all be so terribly despairing, if it wasn’t so funny. For Llewyn’s crisis is never knowingly as existential as this. It’s the little things that get to him. That darn cat, Ulysses, for instance. The backing vocal to his duo’s hit song. His pregnant lover.
It’s a beautiful film – gorgeously lit, with strange little interludes and a terrific central performance by Oscar Isaac – that I’m sure will grow on me even more with subsequent viewings. I didn’t walk away from it immediately thinking it was a masterpiece – Barton Fink and Raising Arizona are better and still remain my favourites – but it stimulated a great post-film conversation about the compulsion to create, the ubiquity of failure and the terror of deferring your dreams. I can’t tell you how strongly this resonated with me. I highly recommend you see it.