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Cannes 2013: 5 Coen Brothers Motifs That Show Up In The Coen Brothers’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

The Playlist By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist May 20, 2013 at 12:22PM

By now, word of the flat-out loveliness of the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” has probably reached your ears -- if not, take a moment to read our Cannes review from Saturday. Amid the peaks and troughs of the Cannes competition line-up, it’s a polished, warmhearted gem displaying all the of the brothers’ trademark intelligence and wit, in a remarkably ungimmicky, classical way. Simply put, it sings.
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Inside Llewyn Davis

By now, word of the flat-out loveliness of the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” has probably reached your ears -- if not, take a moment to read our Cannes review from Saturday. Amid the peaks and troughs of the Cannes competition line-up, it’s a polished, warmhearted gem displaying all the of the brothers’ trademark intelligence and wit, in a remarkably ungimmicky, classical way. Simply put, it sings.

Undoubtedly a breakout role for Oscar "Oscar?" Isaac and with a soundtrack that has already worked in converting this pre-Dylan-folk-music non-fan, one thing that did strike us was that despite its period accuracy and absolute sense of itself, it’s still unmistakably a Coen Brothers film, displaying many of their recurring motifs and visual quirks. That these little trademarks never snag in the fabric of the film, but add a knowing layer of familiarity for those of us who care to look out for that sort of thing, is another of the film’s quiet magic tricks. It also means you don’t particularly need to be afraid of spoilers here. So here’s a rundown of 5 things we spotted in “Inside Llewyn Davis” that we recognized from other Coens’ films.

Hudsucker Proxy
A uniformed lift operator
The elevator in one of the apartment buildings where Llewyn crashes is operated by an older man (something of a jobsworth it seems), who appears early on and later again in the film. There’s a more sinister version in “Barton Fink,” played by Harry Bugin, who would turn up in “The Big Lebowski” and also play the malevolent caretaker character in “The Hudsucker Proxy.” And speaking of “The Hudsucker Proxy,” it too boasts a elevator operator, albeit a younger model in Buzz (Jim True-Frost), who becomes temporary toast of Hudsucker Industries after Norville Barnes’ (Tim Robbins) fall from grace.

"Blood Simple"
"Blood Simple"
An awkward car journey
The Coens have enjoyed shooting in cars, it seems, ever since their debut “Blood Simple.” Something about the enclosed space and the inescapability of the situation seems to lend itself to their sensibilities, so from marital strife playing itself out between H.I. and Edwina and then the Snoats brothers realizing they’ve forgotten the baby in “Raising Arizona,” to the butt of The Dude’s joint going awol causing him to crash his car, to the extended sequence of Brad Pitt jumping into and out of cars culminating in a chase in “Burn After Reading,” it’s a situation they clearly enjoy. But Llewyn’s fellow occupants on his ride-share to Chicago, however, find their closest parallel in the nearly mute Peter Stormare and the relentlessly garrulous Steve Buscemi in “Fargo,” a dynamic mirrored later on in that same film too when Marge (Frances McDormand) arrests Stormare and scolds him while driving him to the station.

Barton Fink
A John Goodman character with a dark side
The Goodman character in ‘Llewyn Davis’ was reportedly written directly for the actor (Joel Coen mentioned in today’s press conference that it had been Goodman who gave him his first ever Charles Portiss book, and Portiss, of course, wrote the novel on which the Coens based their last film “True Grit.” Portiss, claimed Coen, was a specialist in this kind of "gasbag" character and so Goodman’s role here is a tip of the hat to that author). Goodman is something of a talisman for the Coens, but one of the reasons he’s become such a notable and regular contributor to their universe is that they are the ones most likely to give him these wonderfully nuanced characters to play, in which his physicality and his joviality often mask a dark side. Finding its best expression in “Barton Fink”'s upbeat, kindly and psychopathic Charlie Meadows, Goodman has also played a turncoat criminal in “Raising Arizona,” a shady bible salesman in “O Brother Where Art Thou” as well as the loyal but unpredictably violent Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak in “The Big Lebowski.” (Goodman, of course, is a sub-trope of the larger Coen fascination with what they've described as the Howling Fat Man, as illustrated in the video below). 

John Mahoney Barton Fink
A scene in a washroom
During the road trip portion of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a certain scene occurs in a highway restaurant washroom that reminded us of a similar one in “Barton Fink” in which John Mahoney’s William Faulkner-esque writer character is discovered vomiting in a stall by would-be protege Barton (John Turturro). Washrooms seem to figure frequently, with Tom (Gabriel Byrne) confronting Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) in a women’s washroom in “Miller’s Crossing” and a Kubrick-referencing gas station bathroom popping up in “Raising Arizona” among the first ones that also spring to mind.

Barton Fink
A sinister, silhouetted, hat-wearing man
One of ‘Llewyn Davis’’ more impressionistic sequences features a silhouetted man in a fedora-style hat who could have come straight from one of their noir-influenced period films like “The Man Who Wasn’t There” or “Miller’s Crossing,” in which, of course, the hat itself is an icon. The motif pops up again dramatically in the fiery climax of “Barton Fink” as Goodman’s Charlie Meadows charges down the burning hallway, lit from behind. The Coens are known for featuring peculiar hairstyles, and 'No Country' is the exception that proves the rule, but on this evidence weird hair = good, hat = scary. 

There are undoubtedly many more to be found (we’re fairly sure aging but mouthy secretaries and run-ins with bureaucratic pettiness feature heavily across their oeuvre, for example), but these are the ones that jumped out from what will probably be the first of many viewings of this film. Pretty sure there are further examples of the above motifs in their back catalogue too -- let us know the ones we missed below and circle the film’s December 6th release date on your calendar several times over, with hearts and flowers if necessary.

This article is related to: Inside Llewyn Davis, Coen Brothers, Cannes Film Festival


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