The Coen Brothers and the Absurd

Adam Koscielak
4 min readJul 14, 2015

“What did we learn, Palmer?” asks J.K. Simmons after an epic rant in the final scene of Burn After Reading, one of the more underappreciated Coen Brothers movies. ”I don’t know, sir.” answers David Rasche’s Palmer, to which Simmons quips “I don’t fucking know either.” This line, as many critics have pointed out before, is the most meta the Coen Brothers get. For years people were searching for overarching moral themes in their films, lessons to be learned. After all, every great film maker in that style, gives us some kind of lesson, an insight into the human condition, a guideline to what being a good person is.

There is no such thing with the Coens. There are no good people, and the bad ones are usually heartless psychopaths, dark tropes of humanity. Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men was one. The gang in True Grit was another. If anything, they were the burdens of adaptation. After all, even the would-be murderers in Fargo seem to have a moral code. The evil, if anywhere, is in the surrounding world and the way people react to its injustices.

Inside Llewyn Davis, seems to explore this theme even further. In the film, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a folk musician in the 60s, who (minor spoilers incoming) having lost his partner to suicide goes up trying to start a solo career, playing around New York bars, waiting for a call from a famous manager in Chicago and sleeping on someone’s couch every night. We follow him through a week in his life, as he tries to survive the winter without a coat, dragging his upper-class friends’ cat along with him.¹

Llewyn by all means is an asshole. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the support the people around him give him, he’s holier than thou, he’s sarcastic, and he seems to lack any semblance of patience when it comes to his career, leading him to miss countless opportunities. When he has a chance to get royalties on a potentially hit single (written by his friend Jim, who is portrayed wonderfully by Justin Timberlake) he chooses to take $200 up front instead, when a manager suggest he could do good in a bigger group, he scoffs and leaves. When he has a chance to visit his former lover and his child in Akron while driving back from Chicago, he chooses to come back to New York, to the same miserable life he’s been leading all this time. Jim’s wife (and Llewyn’s lover) Jean (once again, great casting, with Carey Mulligan) summarizes Llewyn perfectly in an impassioned rant. “You turn everything to shit, because you are shit.” It’s not that Llewyn is a bad person. It’s just that he doesn’t realize how full of himself he is, and how much he could do if he looked beyond his arrogance. He has enough talent to make it…with somebody.

In that, Llewyn becomes an absurd hero, much like Camus’ Sisyphus. His search for meaning in life leads him to repeating an arduous task over and over again. As Rust Kohle from True Detective would say, time is a flat circle — Inside Llewyn Davis begins and ends in the same scene, giving the impression that much like Sisyphus is bound to repeatedly roll the stone up the mountain, Llewyn is bound to repeatedly find and lose hope, all (just like Sisyphus) due to his own actions.

I don’t know for a fact that the Coens had this in mind when writing the film, but I do know that Camus’ themes are very much a part of their work. The Man Who Wasn’t There is very much grounded in The Outsider. The aforementioned J.K. Simmons line, is very much a reflection on the absurd nature of life, especially on the meta-level of searching for a deeper meaning in the Coens’ films. There is none. And that’s the meaning. A paradoxical message if there ever was one. People are people, the world is the world, people fight against the world trying to understand it. “A nihlist? That must be exhausting.” says The Dude in The Big Lebowski. He can’t imagine a life with no meaning, even if he doesn’t seem to care about the meaning, per se. Hell, for him, the meaning may as well be bowling and a misguide sense of rug-related justice, something that spirals out of control completely by the end of the film. For others there is justice, greed, revenge, but every time it seems to go off the rails, leaving us with one, admittedly exhausting conclusion. If there is a meaning, we’re surely not going to find it. Perhaps that’s why the Coens love dark humour (riddled throughout Inside as well as their other films) so much; it helps us find peace with the realization that they’re trying to bring us. Llewyn, in the end, beat down by the husband of a woman he heckled, seems to laugh it off, embracing the absurdity of the situation, just like Camus claims Sisyphus would. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” Camus says, and I imagine, that for that split second in Llewyn’s vicious and pointless cycle of hope and disappointment, he was indeed happy.

The philosophical context brings new life into the Coens’ work, provides a new quality to otherwise underappreciated movies, adds another layer of subtlety to their work that wouldn’t be noticed otherwise. Even the producers of the Fargo TV series give nods to Sisyphus throughout Season 2. Ironically, that context provides meaning to what has no meaning. Another paradox forms. Have we just found the meaning that was never supposed to be?

I don’t fucking know either.

[1] The cat is a major theme in the movie, as the movie starts with Llewyn accidentally letting it out of an apartment, dragging it around the city, losing it on the way and finally returning it to the owners… Only to find out that it’s not the same cat… As it is female, while the lost cat was… Well… Male. “Where’s the scrotum, Llewyn?” asks his friend. This is a horrible stroke of bad luck for Llewyn since over 80% of red haired cats are male. You can now unsubscribe from Cat Facts.

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Adam Koscielak

Canadian-Pole. Copywriter by day, leftist activist by night. Feel free to drop me a line @ adam.s.koscielak@gmail.com,