Inside Llewyn Davis Is the Seventh-Best Coen Brothers Movie

Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 5 2013 2:03 PM

How Does Inside Llewyn Davis Compare to the Coens’ Best Movies?

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Llewyn is a little bit like Larry, has shades of Barton, and could probably hang with the Dude.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker, with stills courtesy of Gramercy, FOX, Focus Features, Paramount, and CBS Films

Rewatching all the Coen brothers’ movies a couple years ago, I was impressed—though not surprised—by the stylistic unity of their work, evident in ways both large and small. Most of their movies are about men with relatively little power who are buffeted by bad luck, worse enemies, and terrible decision-making. And 12 of their 15 films feature scenes of powerful men sitting behind big desks.

Make that 13 of 16: Inside Llewyn Davis is unquestionably a Coen brothers movie, as anyone who’s seen just the trailer can tell. And yes, in one scene, the frequently hapless protagonist of the title sits across from an old white man and asks him for money. (Sound familiar? It should.) We also get a funny haircut, courtesy of John Goodman, one of the six Coen motifs Tricia Cooke (wife of Ethan Coen) and William Preston Robertson identified in their book about The Big Lebowski.

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The movie, which opens in a few cities today, has been compared to O Brother, Where Art Thou? because of its emphasis on music—and there’s a sly joke late in the film that invokes that earlier comedy (a joke I won’t spoil here). But the previous Coen movie it most resembles may be Barton Fink, which also centers on an artist working in a creatively fertile period and worried about selling out (though Fink, unlike Davis, is doing just that). It lacks the apocalyptic edge of that film, to be sure—fittingly, since this one has nothing to do with the Holocaust. Instead Llewyn Davis has the easier charm of the Coens’ previous movie, True Grit. And its titular hero is a little Larry Gopnik-like, in his steady absorption of slings and arrows (though, unlike Larry, you could imagine Llewyn hanging out with the younger Jeffrey Lebowski, in his Seattle Seven years, perhaps).

Like all those movies, Llewyn Davis showcases a journey at once physical and existential—as well as faintly surreal. (Rather than a man dressed as a bear, this time we get an animal darting mysteriously across the highway.) And the film, like its predecessors, emphasizes a very specific time and place in the not-so-distant American past. (Period-wise, Inside Llewyn Davis fits snugly between The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man.)

So yes, this is a Coen brothers movie. But how does it stack up against their other films? As part of that 2011 Coen brothers Completist, I ranked all their features—and then asked Slate readers for their own rankings, in the process discovering that people really enjoy ranking Coen brothers movies. It’s just a parlor game, but it’s fun. So let’s do it again.

Granted, I have only seen Inside Llewyn Davis once, so its spot is even more subject to change than the others. But for now, at least, it sits squarely between those strange films (A Serious Man, Barton Fink, Raising Arizona) that seem to me truly indelible and the highly entertaining ones (Miller’s Crossing, Burn After Reading, a couple others) that I love but which feel less essential. I enjoyed Llewyn Davis from start to finish, and it has stayed with me more than I was expecting. But I’m not sure, yet, that it will hold my interest quite so long as the six films above it.

In other words, Inside Llewyn Davis is without a doubt the seventh-best Coen brothers movie so far. Let the arguing begin. Again.

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