Two articles in recent days have discussed an apparent tendency by Inside Llewyn Davis director-writers Joel and Ethan Coen to torture their lead characters with a certain dry sadistic relish. In an 11.21 Tablet piece (“Coen Bros. Torture Another Schlemiel While Imagining They Are Dylan’s True Heirs”) Jim Hoberman wrote that their brand of “artful contempt” involves “bullying the characters they invent for their own amusement.” In an 11.28 piece called “Torture Your Darlings: On the Coen Brothers’ Cursed Characters,” Calum Marsh discusses the same thing. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to note that a sadistic current is detectable in what happens to Oscar Isaac‘s Llewyn Davis in the Coens’ latest.
This “sticking pins in their characters” tendency has been evident in the Coens’ films all along, but it became a bit more noticable four years ago, I feel, with A Serious Man. I kicked it around in a review that I wrote in September 2009 after seeing this film at the Toronto Film Festival, and then again while discussing it with Joel and Ethan in a hotel room. And I have to say that Marsh and particularly Hoberman don’t seem to be getting the joke.
I don’t think the Coens are into torturing their characters like demonic puppeteers as much as acknowledging or reflecting what they see as the random and occasionally cruel nature of life and fate and destiny (depending on the breaks), and God’s attitude of cosmic indifference about who gets hurt or killed or brought to their knees or whatever. That’s not sadism on the Coens’ part — that’s honesty and a certain shrugging of the shoulders.
This is wicked-bitter-toxic funny, or the darker cousin of “no-laugh funny.” I’m thinking again of that Michael O’Donoghue line that “making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.” Which isn’t entirely true. I just believe that LQTM humor exists on a much higher plane than hah-hah humor…that’s all.
The Coens’ basic attitude about life, I suggested during our ’09 chat, could be summed up in what I’ve referred to a few times as “the Kiki joke.” The one about two anthropologists captured by cannibals in New Guinea, etc. Chief to anthropologists: “Death or kiki?” Anthropologist #1 chooses kiki and is beaten, tortured, whipped, flayed and eaten by crocodiles. The chief asks Anthropologist #2 the same question, and he says, “I’m not a brave man so I’ll choose death.” And the chief goes, “Very well, death…but first, kiki!”
The Coens weren’t sure what I meant at first so I began to tell the Kiki joke and Joel went, “Oh, you mean roo-roo?” And then he laughed, which is relatively rare for Joel. I don’t know if it was Ethan or Joel who said “we know that joke well!” but one of them did. So not only did they not disagree with the analogy but they got a good laugh from it. The subject is raised around the four-minute mark.