There are two kinds of Coen brothers films: the good ones and the bad ones. As with Woody Allen or Robert Altman or Federico Fellini, very rarely do they fall between two stools. The reasons for the artistic success or failure of a Coen brothers film can usually be determined according to a simple rule. The good ones combine an expertly evoked mood with a tight and convoluted plot hinging on genre conventions (even if those conventions become twisted or subverted). The bad ones don’t have much in the way of plot, so that no matter how diligently the mood is sustained, or which genre the script appears to have sprung from, the impression is superficial, affected, soul-less.
Their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, shares with the likes of Barton Fink and A Serious Man this malady. It is confident and self-congratulatory in its ability to evoke unease or melancholia or claustrophobia in a single cut or composition or camera angle. The world of the (fictional) struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), trying to make his way in early 1960s New York, is one of long, narrow corridors, oppressively rumbling subway trains, grotesque faces shot from unflattering angles. Shoes squelch, winds whip, a car harrumphs noisily over the potholes in a road, a man hitchhikes in the fog. We feel comfortingly uncomfortable.
Davis had a singing partner, Mike, who committed suicide, though the insinuation is that it is actually Davis who died: he seems to exist in a limbo between the living and the dead. He may not even be human; there is a suggestion that his soul may have been decanted into the body of a cat. (Taking down the message “Llewyn Davis has the cat”, a woman mistakenly writes “Llewyn Davis is the cat.”) A last-minute structural trick in the script’s chronology reinforces the idea that he is trapped in a no man’s land. Certainly a grave couldn’t be any colder than the world through which Davis trudges. This is the sort of the thing that the Coens can do by numbers. Dread is their bread and butter. The film’s interior life, though, is inert. Gimmickry does the job of characterisation. Effect is everything. Nothing else matters.
The Coens need story more than most. They require the harness of narrative to prevent their natural artistic self-indulgence and philosophical smugness from smothering the material. It is of little consequence that the dense plot of The Big Lebowski doesn’t amount in the final analysis to a hill of mung beans: it keeps the filmmakers focused and generates a pleasurable friction with the main character’s baggy, ambling nature. It isn’t a watertight rule: despite being plot-heavy, Burn After Reading fails because where the audience’s privileged knowledge of proceedings, our position several steps ahead of the characters, undercuts the comedy. The Coens are nothing if not dedicated audience-flatterers: they love to make us feel smart. (As far back as 1996, in a review of Fargo, Adam Mars-Jones asked: “The Coen brothers are very knowing, but what is it that they know?”)
As a helpful guide, I have listed the good and bad Coen brothers films below. The anomalies—that is, those which fail for a reason other than a prevalence of mood over narrative—are Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading.
Good Coen brothers films:
Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?
Bad Coen brothers films:
Inside Llewyn Davis is released on 24 January.