The Coen Brothers: from Wurst to First

 

Introduction:

With the release of Hail, Caesar! last year, it came to my attention that a lot of people kind of make a sport of ranking the Coen Brothers' entire catalog each time a new movie comes out. Although I disapprove of this sport business, my ultra-nerd side loves to list and rank everything, and the Coens are particularly enticing because of their consistency on one hand, variety of themes and styles on another, and divisiveness—as far as everyone's opinions go. Great movies to take apart, look at in miniature, examine the big picture, and argue about endlessly. Though my criticism here might sometimes seem harsh—and unfair to constantly be measuring them against Preston Sturges—we're not talking about Ethan and Joel Schmoe here—these guys have made 17 feature films (all of them very good, in my opinion) and they're going to make more. First I watched the ones I'd missed over the years, then re-watched the ones I hadn't seen in awhile, and by that time felt I'd better just watch the rest. Over half a year later, I finally decided on my “final ranking” and went back to the over-baked stuff I'd started writing about them. Realizing that I'd have a book-length manuscript by the time (years later) I'd finished, I finally decided to allow myself one paragraph per movie. And when the next movie comes out, I'll watch them all again, re-rank them, and write this all over again.

 

Number 17: Fargo (1996)

The idea of the filmmaker as a childlike god—looking down on the world where they're playing—is slightly more tolerable with the Coen Brothers, since there are two of them, and you can imagine them snickering to each other as they set in motion their contraptions fueled by massive stupidity. But someone like an older sister or smart aunt should have stepped in to help Jean Lundegaard. I have no way, really, to explain my revulsion toward this obviously formidable work of art than to say there is a line (in regards to the treatment, degradation, and destruction of characters) for me, and this story steps over it, which has a snowball effect of turning all of the characters' lack of interest in life into an indictment. I felt like the characters were belittled in every respect. I laughed, too, at times, but that couldn't save it for me, and the famous scene with Steve Buscemi's character being made into human wurst in the wood chipper didn't ultimately turn it into a cartoon. I also didn't like Carter Burwell's score (I usually love his film music) which makes me feel like I'm at a Society for Creative Anachronism joust, and renders the thing I most like about this movie, the landscape, into a nightmare.

 

Number 16 – True Grit (2010)

I've always hated Westerns, having had them shoved down my throat as a kid, so every time I see a really good one it starts out as an uphill battle and is ultimately exhausting. That is maybe why this is one of the Coens' movies I didn't go to see at a theater, and Westerns need the big screen. But ultimately I liked it. I believe I read that they were going to stick more to the Charles Portis novel than the John Wayne movie (1969) (which I remember not liking, as a kid, at all). This feels like the least Coen Brothers of all their movies to me, but where it's pure Coens is every time the little girl, Mattie (played by Hailee Steinfeld) takes command of a scene; she's precocious and comic, yet her common sense and fearlessness is inspiring, and the heart of the story. Jeff Bridges is great as usual, and he takes “crusty” to another level, but the Mattie character is the movie. For me, I was happy any time the characters were talking, and every time there is action, adventure, shooting, riding, suspense... I'm pretty much in zzzz-land.

 

Number 15 – O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Probably the Coen Brothers movie I have the least to say about; I like it, but am just not that excited about it. I remember seeing it at the theater when it came out in 2000, and being a little disappointed because I thought (unfairly, I guess) it might have more to do with the Preston Sturges film Sullivan's Travels (1941) from which it takes its title. In a way it's kind of a companion to Hail, Caesar! in that both are named after films within films, and both period comedies (this one is 1930s) with extended musical numbers. For some reason I could never get very excited by this Great Depression, rural South epic, or the period folk music that is a prominent part of the story, nor the sepia-tone look, nor the overly convoluted plot, even though I've watched it several times. The definite high point for me is the language, which is odd and pleasing, and the performances of the leads, particularly George Clooney who plays a kind of hustler whose major attribute is his mouth—one of those guys who could sell you anything even while you know you're being taken, just because you're mesmerized by the poetry of his effort.

 

Number 14 – Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

This is such a bizarre mess that I'll put it on a list of similar oddities if I ever make one. The Coens are admittedly highway robbers of cinema, but their inspiration here is borrowing from Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve (1941) (which is solidly one of my five favorite movies ever) to which this can't stand up; pretty much every performance in movie history withers next to Barbara Stanwyck's in that movie. But the much more bizarre thing they do is borrow liberally from several scenes in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001), which came out only a couple years earlier. This movie is framed really oddly with scenes that make you think your'e in the wrong movie (or watching bad TV) and there are some subplots that also seem out of place (though Cedric the Entertainer's character, Gus Petch, is the funniest part of the movie) (as well as Billy Bob Thornton's couple of hilarious scenes). The joke about the two main characters—a sleazy lawyer played by George Clooney and a gold-digger, Catherine Zeta-Jones—being actually turned on by tearing up prenuptial agreements is beaten to death, but still pretty funny. The animated opening credits, along with Elvis Presley's “Suspicious Minds” is a kind of amazing scene in itself. Ultimately, the most interesting thing to me is the odd shift of tones and styles, which might not always work, but sure excites me on an intellectual oddity level. Also, I'm going to, at some point, see what I can find written about the weird connection to the Mulholland Drive.

 

Number 13 – Raising Arizona (1987)

If the Coen Brothers had gone on to make all their movies pretty much along the same lines as this one they might be more popular than they are now, but not with me, and I probably would have stopped paying attention. The super fast paced, kinetic and loud, chaotic style with the fast zooms into someone's horrified face or screaming mouth—it is just not for me. It's interesting that this is the first of their movies I saw at the theater when it came out, and I was not impressed at the time; if you would have told me then I'd be writing an article about seventeen of their films, thirty years in the future, I would have laughed. It's also my first (and least favorite) exposure to John Goodman. Some of the smaller parts are just not that good, and “The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse” made me yawn. Trey Wilson, however, is great, and Frances McDormand's small part is maybe her funniest ever. The thing that bothers me most, though, ultimately, is that I can't get over the sense that the story (a barren couple desperately wanting a baby, kidnap one of a set of locally famous quintuplets) screamed out for them to keep losing babies (comically, tragically) after which they'd go back and kidnap another one, and then another. Maybe the Coens were wise not to indulge in comic infant tragedy, but what an opportunity.

 

Number 12 – The Ladykillers (2004)

I have not seen the original The Ladykillers, a seemingly beloved 1955 British comedy, though will some day and it will probably influence my opinion of this remake, which is the story of a band of criminals pulling off a heist and then attempting to kill the landlady of the house they are using as their headquarters. This is my favorite Tom Hanks part (though I haven't, remotely, seen them all) as he is the smooth talking, slimy “Professor” and the dialogue is just pretty insane and worth re-watching just to hear him deliver it. The landlady, played by Irma P. Hall, is both the funniest and best part; she comes across as clueless as the rest, but has the kind of innate wisdom attributed to the ideal of the “mother” (as in Captain Penny's reworking of Abraham Lincoln's “You can fool some of the people...” quote). Most of the minor characters don't come off as well, and some of the comedy is a little broad (I am just never going to be a fan of poop humor)—the exception being (in spite of the IBS jokes) J.K. Simmons, who creates a dead-on portrait of the overly confident, know-it-all moron everyone has had the pleasure of knowing. The other stars here are the cartoonish bridge with the garbage barge inching below, and the landlady's cat, Pickles, who is always escaping and gets the last word in this movie.

 

Number 11 – Hail, Caesar! (2016)

This is the movie that came out the year I'm writing this—there has been so little to see at the theater, it was very welcome, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, went a second time (I almost always like Coen Brothers movies more on the second viewing), and then went a third time and... had some problems. It took me awhile to figure out what was bothering me, but now I think what I wanted was... more. As much as I liked Josh Brolin's performance, I found the Eddie Mannix character the least interesting of the leads and not the best choice to frame the story, and would've liked it to be more of a complete ensemble piece like, say, Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), with no individual focus, but expansion of several of the characters. No new characters, but more of Baird Whitlock, Hobie Doyle, DeeAnna Moran, Burt Gurney, and Laurence Laurentz. And then also, maybe expanding some of the others, like Jonah Hill's character, and one of the communists, and then most of all, Tilda Swinton's twin sisters. I loved the musical numbers and would have liked more. In an ideal world, this is the movie that should have been shot in 70mm, widescreen, and shown in exhibition on film, with an intermission (instead of The Hateful Eight). Or at the very least, three hours long with an intermission (I'd love to see what the Coens would do with an intermission). Plus, I wish they would have worked in a cat somewhere. Just one idea: imagine framing a longer, more sprawling movie with an expansion of the identical twin gossip columnists, played by Tilda Swinton—their lives, their offices, their relationship(s), their cat(s). The possibilities make me want to cry.

 

Number 10 – The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)

I'm not generally concerned with box office, or consensus opinion, but it's interesting that this movie was considered an epic failure and people seem to hate it. I guess it had a rather large budget—and it does look and feel epic and expensive—and then made no money. You can see the problem developing: worst movie title ever; it's essentially a holiday movie and was released in March; and it's the first Coen Brothers movie not steeped in violence, and the juvenile, violence loving faction of Coen fans weren't happy. It was my favorite of their movies for a long time, first of all because it's to some degree a movie about work, and I loved the insane inside workings of the huge company, from boardroom to elevator to mailroom, hyper-exaggerated but still ringing true. Then, also, it's a reworking of a nostalgic, holiday kind of movie, essentially their version of Frank Capra. I very much liked the over-the-top, screwball comic performances and the usual Coen hyper-focus on odd details and often invisible minutiae brought to the foreground. It was only years after seeing this that I saw the Preston Sturges classic Christmas in July (1940) (that I would then, for awhile, list as my favorite movie of all time) which this borrows heavily from, and unfortunately, ultimately pales in comparison to. It's not fair, of course, but the Sturges film has one of the best endings in all movies (it's my favorite ending) and I have no idea if the Coens look back on their work, ever, and ask, “What could we have done better?”—but I would be surprised if they didn't return to their biggest influences. Where this movie kind of goes off the tracks is in the second half when it seems to struggle to make it all come together, and this is where Sturges is at his best and can wrap up stories seemingly as if by magic. Also, I want to imagine that Ethan and Joel, re-watching Christmas in July, said to each other, “That's what we need. We need a cat.”

 

Number 9 – Blood Simple (1984)

A nice thing about examining all of the films by the Coen Brothers is they don't have one that stands out as superior or inferior to the rest, and this, their first feature, doesn't look at all like a first film; it's as mature and complex as anything they've made, and has their distinctive signature on it even though at this time there was no body of work. If you've never seen it, or not for awhile, it's worth going back to, and it will surprise you. I'm not going to say anything about the convoluted plot, which is enjoyable in itself, or some purely visual stuff that is as good as anything they'e done, but is best experienced, not talked about. M. Emmet Walsh might be my favorite sleazy private investigator ever—well, certainly his performance would go on a short list of best line delivery of all time. The movie is very violent, and cruel, and it's hard to care about anyone too much. I'm kind of curious about what their fascination with Texas is—though of course, it's a great canvas for this kind of story. If you imagine God as someone who just puts things in motion and then looks down on the world, you can picture him/her being momentarily confused about the people in this story—thinking, “Why in the hell are they acting that way?” Then realizing, “Oh right, I see the bigger picture, but these people are all acting on insufficient information, with insufficient imaginations, and very base, limited motivation. And they're getting everything wrong.”

 

Number 8 – Burn After Reading (2008)

At one point this was one of my least favorite Coen Brothers films, mostly due to how totally grim it all is, on one hand, and—though it starts out really promising—as it goes along and the characters start dying, I liked it less. Also, the contemporary time period and the setting in mostly Washington DC suburbs is equally as bleak and depressing, and I kind of get the impression not real inspiring to the filmmakers. When I revisited it, however, I enjoyed the almost clinical examination of the worst of human nature. Again using the God looking down analogy, the film opens with a progression of satellite surveillance images, zooming down on our story, and then at the very end (after a great short scene with J.K. Simmons perfectly expressing how we might be feeling by that point) we again zoom out—which could mean both the intelligence agency burying the the story, and God saying, “Get me the fuck out of here.” There are kind of odd and off-center, hilarious comic performances throughout, particularly by Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, and Coen's regular Richard Jenkins. My favorite though, here, is John Malkovich, and this makes you wish he was in more of their movies. Tilda Swinton's part, sadly, is brief, but the short scene where Malkovich tells her that he's writing a “memoir”—her reaction, then, is priceless—I think it's my favorite comic moment in any Coen Brothers film.

 

Number 7 – No Country for Old Men (2007)

Like a restaurant critic with dietary restrictions, my disinterest in and even revulsion toward movie violence in recent years makes it problematic to write about movies in general, but especially someone like the Coen Brothers for whom it is a central element. This film came at a time when I had no interest in seeing it, so it was some years later that I took it up on the small screen where it lost its Western grandeur but still sucked me in as an exciting narrative. Being caught up in this story, as I'm sure anyone would be on first viewing, is an upsetting experience, as it pretty much turns all the conventions of action, western, suspense, heist, and crime movies upside down and inside out. This is its strength, of course, and definitely a reason for repeat viewing where there is pleasure in being unencumbered by the emotions that come with caring about the characters. I don't like being upset by movies, and maybe that is a weakness of mine, but nail-biting, edge of seat viewing is not my thing (maybe why I've never been a fan of horror movies), while trying to figure out puzzles is. I believe the Coen's foremost interest, in all their films, is the movies, which is one of the things I like about them, and in this case the relationship of Cormac McCarthy's novel to purely filmic elements, mise-en-scène, the performances, editing, what is not shown, and—particularly spectacular in this movie—the silences. My very favorite part of this movie are the matching two scenes with Ed Tom (Tommy Lee Jones) and Chigurh (Javier Bardem) drinking from a bottle of milk in front of the same blank TV screen, with only minutes separating them. Up until the very beautiful last two scenes (that contain humanity, sanity, and cats) this is mostly Chigurh's movie, and I began by hating him and his bullshit coin-toss bullying, but ultimately I came to like him because he's essentially a cartoon; you could almost replace him with an animated Beavis, Butt-Head, or penis-head Darth Vader—he's ultimately comic, and not someone we'd ever meet in real life. Well, we might, but the odds are very, very slim, while the odds of encountering some other stupid, tragic fate are very good. And the odds of it all coming to an end one day—with the feeling of still not having figured shit out—are overwhelming.

 

Number 6 – The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

At one point I claimed this was my favorite Coen Brothers film, and I still think it's the most beautiful; the black and white compositions throughout and the faces of the actors, who are all just pretty incredible. It is James M. Cain-level noir of such bleakness that the beauty is necessary just to make it bearable. The set-up, for me, is irresistible; the post-WWII era of promise and confusion; the main character, Ed, played by Billy Bob Thornton is a barber who almost never speaks, yet the whole movie is narrated by his voice-over, so essentially he never shuts up. He is not unhappy, yet not happy, but too passive to ever make changes, and then when he does finally put a plan into action the consequences are so dire and epic as to destroy the lives of nearly everyone in the movie. There is also a second story about Ed's infatuation with an adolescent girl pianist that is almost too heartbreaking to contain itself. It ends up being kind of an unwieldy movie, not tight enough for classic film-noir, but for me more exciting because of its possibilities than what is ultimately on screen. I wish there could be ten movies here, each one taking on a different variation of what might have happened; I suppose I just relate to this Ed character, to a fault. What finally happens is that the story (as are the lives and fates of Ed and his wife, Doris, played by Frances McDormand) is hijacked by the best portrayal (Tony Shalhoub) of a fast-talking, slime-ball lawyer I've ever seen (who in one scene, with classic lawyer hubris, hilariously missuses a pop-culture misunderstanding of the Uncertainty Principal as his line of defense) reducing Ed and Doris to spectators in their own demise. In the end, the lawyer burps, wipes his mouth, and then cashes his check while Ed and Doris become forgotten specs of dust.

 

Number 5 – Barton Fink (1991)

According to the Coen Brothers they wrote the script for Barton Fink while suffering with writer's block while working on Miller's Crossing. I don't know if that is true, but it's a good story, so I'll go with it, and for that reason, I see this film, which is their most surreal, also as their most personal—at least in that it's their only story about a writer. I think I like it so much because I relate to it in an odd way—not any of the specifics, really, but the solitary figure thrust into a world he finds both exotic and alienating, suffering with anxiety and writer's block. The character of Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a pompous, self-important ass, who all writers will recognize in themselves (or should), who does realize he should listen more, but can't help but to pontificate, given even the smallest audience. Also, despite horrific, nightmarish events throughout, I find the movie (in much the way, apparently, fans of Fargo do, that I don't) incredibly funny. For me it all looks pretty attractive, or at least has a kind of nostalgic appeal; the crazy hotel and desk clerk, the kind but terrifying neighbor, the meetings with movie studio psychopath-level bosses, and meeting the alcoholic writer, and even the silent typewriter and dripping wallpaper. I especially love Judy Davis's character who represents so many things—the muse, wisdom, the inside track, the editor, the collaborator, nurse, mother, best friend, (brother, even?), desire, sex, love, redemption—all at once—who is almost immediately taken away from him (along with the haunting possibility that he was directly responsible). It's at that point that the story turns back on itself, and ultimately then, I see this as a story—the story (it could be a play, a screenplay, novel or short story) that a writer—for whom Barton Fink becomes the character—wrote about his disastrous and hilarious attempt—the good, the bad, and the nightmarish of it—to go out to Hollywood and be a writer for the pictures.

 

Number 4 – Miller's Crossing (1990)

The violence in this very violent movie is so cartoonish you can almost see the cartoon font “Rat-a-tat” emitting from the Tommy guns—except in the scenes involving the protagonist, Tom Reagan, and this is an important point. I am not a huge fan of the gangster genre, so when I saw this at the theater, it became my favorite gangster movie ever and made me a Coen Brothers fan from then on. The incredibly complex plot is almost impossible to put your head around the first time through, definitely rewards multiple viewings, and, for me anyway, gets even better over time. I won't go into the period history, ethnicities, and sexual orientations—all very complex and important—but the crucial thing is the relationships between crime boss Leo, his girlfriend Verna and her brother Bernie, Bernie's boyfriend Mink, Mink's boyfriend The Dane, and The Dane's boss, Johnny Caspar, who is Leo's rival. Tom (played by Gabriel Byrne) is Leo's right-hand man, and he slides between all of these characters and their tangled web with an almost superhero intelligence and ability to see several steps ahead of everyone. What keeps it interesting is his weaknesses—he's an alcoholic, gambling addict, possibly a self-destructive masochist, and is very, very human. In the crucial scenes in the woods at Miller's Crossing, the entire point of this movie is that we identify with Tom, and I think, realize (or we should—the bulk of us in the audience)—that in spite of violent movies' ability to put a video-game, endless-bullets-gun in our hands—if actually ever faced with a real situation, we wouldn't be able to kill a man in cold blood, even to save ourselves. And then there is also the small matter of luck, a force no one wants to admit has a tremendous influence on our lives. As with all Coen movies, there are influences (Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key) all over the place, but The Third Man (1949) is an especially major one here. The acting is all great, but John Turturro, as Bernie, is spectacular. The final question of the movie might be: Does Tom Reagan have a heart, or not? In my opinion, he's the only one in the movie with a heart. Though maybe Leo does, too, and Verna, and Tom's is broken, right there for us to see in that final, last shot.

 

Number 3 – A Serious Man (2009)

It's interesting that the Coen Brothers have set their films in almost every decade since 1920—except one—the 1970s—but this one, set in 1967, is the one most about that sudden explosion of cultural change that must have been as scary as it was wonderful. I was just young enough that it all seemed kind of normal to me (much like Danny Gopnik, in this movie) and having grown up in a similar, white, middle-class, Midwestern neighborhood (though with much less Jewish influence), this is their movie I might relate to most. On first viewing, I found it disorienting to the point of unpleasantness, and the second time I found it horrific, right up to the apocalyptic conclusion, which I took literally (and you don't necessarily have to). On each viewing since, I have found it increasingly hilarious, and by now, for me, it's one of their funniest movies. If you want to, you can try to figure out how the Yiddish folktale prologue, the Book of Job, the Mentaculus, Schrödinger's Cat paradox, and Jefferson Airplane's “Somebody To Love” fit together—or you can just let it all rattle around in your brain the way the changing world must have for adults in the late 1960s. The movie is essentially a series of meetings with Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) (or occasionally, his son, Danny) with not very helpful individuals—Mrs. Gopnik and her lover, Sy Ableman (who is incredibly, amazingly hilarious), a doctor, colleague on the tenure committee, a disgruntled student, the student's father, the aggressive racist neighbor, the police, a lawyer, three rabbis, a representative from the Columbia Record Club, and on and on. The news goes from bad to merely not very helpful, with the exception of the lonely housewife neighbor, Mrs. Samsky, whose liaison with Larry ends with an annoying interruption. She's kind of mysterious—most likely very normal, but trying out the plastic beads, mood lighting, and marijuana, and why not. At the end of the movie you can close your eyes and be enveloped in the dark cloud of future tragedy, or you can envision Mrs. Samsky, shrugging it all off, which is what I prefer to do.

 

Number 2 – The Big Lebowski (1998)

There are certain movies that for some reason become the holiday movies, the family get-together movies, the ones you watch once a year, like The Wizard of Oz or It's a Wonderful Life (and for me, oddly, The Big Sleep (1946) and a couple of other film noir classics). The Big Lebowski also became that for me, and I'm not even sure when that happened, how or why, but it definitely has taken on that quality—which means the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—so it becomes almost impossible to take a critical or objective view. It's the Coen Brothers movie that has spawned fan festivals, mini-religions, and leagues of people annoyed with hearing about it. You can find people discussing its themes ad nauseam, down to the most head-scratching minutiae, so I'm going to focus here on one point I haven't heard discussed (though it no doubt has been, somewhere). The opening scene in which we are introduced to The Dude (Jeff Bridges), while buying half-and-half at Ralph's, is an obvious reference to Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), which is a more direct, though equally unconventional, take on Raymond Chandler, as well as a portrait of Los Angeles (the two films would make a great double feature, if anyone ever programs double features ever again). In that movie, Marlowe (Elliott Gould) has taken a trip to the grocery store to buy food for his cat, who then runs off and is gone for the rest of the movie (it's one of my favorite opening scenes in any movie). In this movie, The Dude returns home to find his apartment broken into (which happens with alarming frequency, and he tolerates with a zen-like/Marlowe-esque absence of fear) by thugs who have him confused with another Jeff Lebowski, then proceed to pee on his rug and thus fuel the movie's plot. It wasn't a cat who peed on his rug; indeed, The Dude has no cat, and at some point I found myself asking why (along with why does he have no family, wife or girlfriend, or even friends—beyond his bowling buddies who he has very little in common with). Then it occurred to me—the reason for my odd, almost fanatical admiration for this character, in spite of his many imperfect, almost reprehensible qualities—The Dude is a cat. His final, famous line, “The Dude abides,” (a word parroted, like about half his dialogue, from other characters; “I will not abide another toe!”) could be the very definition of the quality and essence of what we love (if you're a cat lover, of course) about the domestic house cat.

 

Number 1 – Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

A beautiful, heartbreaking movie inspired by (not about) Dave Van Ronk and the early 1960s NYC folk music scene, it's also a mystery, a puzzle, and an intense portrait of this Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). If you're like me and into the whole “trying to figure it out” thing, watch it closely (or again), then search out all the crazy theories people have, and watch it again. There is no absolute answer, but for me the resonances are highly personal and will perhaps change as I change. The movie starts with its final scene, then goes back a week or so (the timeline begins with a dissolve to the very important orange cat) and shows the events leading up to this final scene, which is then repeated, with slight variations (not unlike a folk song itself, the way lines are repeated with slight changes, or in different context). The trick here is they don't let you know they're going back in time until you get back to that final scene at the Gaslight Cafe (an actual folk club, but significant in name here; the disorienting effect is akin to gas-lighting the viewer). You get that “Groundhog Day” feeling of looping repetition, and the crucial change (besides now knowing what we know about Llewyn) the second time around is noticing the presence of, taking the stage after Llewyn, Bob Dylan. As Llewyn briefly glances toward the stage, we can't help but think about that famous scene in Dont Look Back (1967)—that look on Donovan's face as Dylan plays “It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.”

Aside from the music, the heart of the story is the relationship between Llewyn, his ex-singing partner, Mike, and the woman who Llewyn arranged an abortion for two years earlier (he discovers that she decided to keep the baby and go back home to Akron, Ohio). There is a connection to that name, Akron (meaning “highest point”) and the significant detail that Mike killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge (in Washington Heights, named for its high elevation), and that Llewyn likely has impregnated his friend, Jean (wife of his friend Jim). These clues lead to the distinct possibility that the Akron woman had been Mike's girlfriend, and her baby is Llewyn's. The possibility that Llewyn was therefore directly implicated in his partner's suicide is almost unbearably dark. His protecting the orange cat, then, can be seen as a kind of transference, subconsciously trying to make things right. Before arriving in Chicago for what he hopes will be a new start, he abandons the cat, and after his failed audition, Bud Grossman recommends he get back together with his partner. He then hits a (similar, orange) creature with the car on his way back to New York, just having passed the exit for Akron. It's not the feel-good movie of the holiday season. By the end of the film we realize that the most we can hope for is that some of this darkness and pain can be channeled into art. As far as life goes—as it goes for most of us—Llewyn is going to keep getting the shit kicked out of him.