Final: John Goodman as Roland Turner

“Why is nothing going right for me? My life is a big bowl of shit.”

Here’s another certainty for you: If John Goodman is in a Coen brothers movie, he’s going to be a monster.

No exceptions. Consider Gale Snoats in Raising Arizona. Consider Karl Mundt in Barton Fink. Consider Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Consider Big Dan Teague in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and then consider this: Roland Turner, the junkie jazzman of Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s Goodman’s best role yet, in the best Coen brothers movie yet.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece of all things film. It reminds me of Barton Fink, in that it’s about an idealistic New York artist whose life enters progressive collapse, but its ambition is restrained. Llewyn’s purpose is small and specific: it means only to explain how its title character winds up beaten in a back alley. It walks to that line and then stops, and this frustrates people, because the story leading to the event is so captivating.

Llewyn Davis is an aspiring folk singer in the 60s, and a mess of contradictions. He has an image in his mind of what a musician should be, and he feels that uncompromising adherence to this image should be enough for him to find financial success. Of course, this attitude gets him nowhere: he surfs couches, eludes pregnancies, judges his peers, and generally bums off everyone he knows.

When a fellow musician offers a car seat for a trip to Chicago, Llewyn sees a real opportunity to break into the business and turn his life around. Maybe, once he gets there, Llewyn can get face-time with club owner Bud Grossman, and land himself a serious gig. It’s during this surreal sojourn that he becomes trapped with the grumbling beatnik Johnny Five, and the ultra-hip Turner.

Turner reminds me of Barton Fink’s W.P. Mayhew, in that he’s also an older, more successful version of his film’s protagonist, but who is also broken down, washed up, and chemically dependent. Worst of all, Turner is unlikeable in the worst possible way: he’s a complete and irredeemable egotist. Like the know-it-all at your office, Turner has an opinion on everything, and he’s happy to let you know about it. To him, folk songs are a joke, and only jazz counts as true music. He considers himself a master pool player, and a worldly connoisseur of food, though some of it makes him shit himself.

Turner occasionally shows interest in Llewyn’s life, but it’s only so he can find a platform to spring into stories about himself. Aside from that, Turner peppers Llewyn with insults, jabs him with his cane, and requires frequent stops for “bathroom breaks.” The only peace Llewyn gets on the trip are during the long periods when Turner’s zonked out on smack.

In time, Turner waddles into dangerous territory when he asks about Llewyn’s former singing partner, who committed suicide. This is a subject that, for Llewyn, is still fresh and painful, and even touching on it causes him to lash out in anger. Of course, Turner doesn’t touch on it, but stomps on it like a child on an anthill, and so Llewyn quietly threatens him.

In response, Turner explains that he’s a practitioner of Santeria and other strange arts. He tells Llewyn that he’s above the folderol of fist fighting; he has the power to curse people. At first, this bluster sounds like the “Real mature, guys” thing that nerds use on bullies, but one must wonder, in light of the events that follow, whether there’s something to it after all.

Going over this, I’m not really sure why I find Roland Turner so fascinating. Maybe it’s because I feel for his rap, as it were. He’s a terrific asshole, forever in the process of salving his own ego. He is proud to be so many miles above the rest of the world, and yet he’s bitter that the world doesn’t understand his greatness. His character is a sad warning to Llewyn, who is similarly deluded. The fact is that Llewyn may not be suited for the life of a professional musician, but to him, anything else is mere “existence.” He doesn’t see that living in his own head and craving superiority over others only results in hateful isolation.

John Goodman, for all his charm, has always had a bit of menace about him: there’s a well of rage beneath his skin that you don’t want to poke into. He doesn’t unleash that beast in this movie, though. Instead, he affects a distant haughtiness that’s perfect for the role. Some viewers might be confused at his inclusion in the story, as it seems ornamental, but the performance is too tremendous to leave out. I also think that his presence facilitates a certain decision for Llewyn, one that will devastate most audiences. God bless Mr. Goodman for making it unforgettable, and God bless the Coens for bringing us one of the best movies ever made.

John Mahoney as W.P. Mayhew

“The truth, my honey, is a tart that does not bear scrutiny.”

There are many Johns in the Coen brothers’ weird thriller Barton Fink (Turturro, Goodman, Polito), but the chameleonic Mahoney, playing a tragic caricature of William Faulkner, always stood out to me. An ostensible gentleman with a pleasing Southern accent, Mayhew is a lot like the movie’s protagonist: a celebrated writer who’s sold himself to Hollywood, he’s a bit haughty, a bit selfish, and completely incapable of listening. He’s also a raging drunk and a woman-beater, a man we’d easily hate if he didn’t seem so sad, so lost, and so lonely.

You know what? Maybe I should just stop here. As much as I love Mayhew’s character, there’s little I can say about him that could provide any unseen insights. I think you’d do better to read this little celebration of Mahoney’s great work, and assume that its views mirror my own.

Jeff Bridges as The Dude

“Oh man, lodged WHERE?”

The Big Lebowski is not my favorite Coen brothers movie. I feel like many of its comic scenes miss their marks by miles. Combine that with irritating and unpleasant characters, like the pompous Maude Lebowski and the repulsive Jesus Quintana, and you have a movie that’s hard to take at times. Still, there are also many great comic scenes, and many lovable characters, not the least of which is the legend himself, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski.

The Dude is the only protagonist on this list of faves, and that’s because he’s the ultimate Coen everyman: easygoing, put-upon, and unimpressed. His friends? A gun-flashing vet and an empty-headed surfer. His enemies? A wheelchair-bound mogul and a pack of German nihilists. His acquaintances? A milquetoast landlord and a mysterious cowpoke called The Stranger. It’s crazy-ness, but that’s L.A., and these are the 90s. The counter-culture is dead, Vietnam forgotten, and deregulation all but embraced. The Dude’s a burned-out hippie in a sold-out city, living in a soulless time.

That’s okay, though, because like most of us, all The Dude wants is a smooth cocktail and a bowling lane. Oh, and a new rug, too.

The Dude’s mission to replace his urine-stained rug sends him from the ‘burbs of West Hollywood to the beaches of Malibu, encountering all manner of mixed nuts along the way. It’s notable that The Dude also happens into an eclectic symphony of music, one including lounge, hula, experimental vocalization, and techno-pop. Despite all this, though, The Dude never strays from home for long. At day’s close, he always comes shambling back to his buddies: Walter, Donny, Creedence, and Bob.

As The Stranger explains, it’s this simple constancy that turns The Dude into The Man For His Time and Place. Even as a parade of jackasses aims to make his life hell — his car and apartment are repeatedly ravaged until, by the end of the film, they’re unrecognizable — Duder chugs along, donning his sunglasses, shaking his head, and uttering a “Fuck it.” I suppose it’s also what makes his adventure such a huge cult favorite: nothing about The Dude’s life seems probable, and yet, we’ve all lived it.

Alan Mandell as Rabbi Marshak

“Be a good boy.”

A common question asked when the credits roll on a Coen brothers movie is, “That’s it?” This is because their films are often mysterious, ambiguous, and just plain confusing. I wouldn’t place them beside the masturbatory ciphers of David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch, as Coen brothers movies are actually enjoyable and funny. However, this makes them all the more frustrating when they invariably yank the rug out from under us. A Serious Man is one of their most mystifying films. It begins with a short story that has no connection to the main one, and ends with several plot threads just waving in the air.

Probably the heaviest of these is the growing desire of its hapless protagonist, Larry Gopnik, to make some sense out of the worst two weeks of his life. With a divorce, bratty children, pushy neighbors, fender benders, student bribes, and felony charges all growling at his door, Larry is sinking in tsuris. He receives mounting advice from friends and acquaintances, alive and dead, to seek the counsel of his local rabbis. The most renowned of these is Rabbi Marshak, an ancient man who may well have the answers to Larry’s questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Unfortunately, the man is quite difficult to get a hold of. In fact, Larry never actually gets to meet Marshak. To Larry, the rabbi is but a tiny face at the end of a dark hallway, a hall he may not enter out of concern for Marshak’s thinking time.

This precious privilege goes instead to Larry’s son Danny, as a post-bar mitzvah blessing. Having suffered through the ceremony while heroically stoned, Danny finds Marshak’s chamber to be an eclectic laboratory. Inside are stacks of what could only be described as “tomes,” grave paintings of Isaac and Abraham, and biological samples suspended in jars. Then, at last, Danny takes his seat before this bearded font of wisdom, to receive the pearls we’ve waited the whole film to hear.

And they’re paraphrased lyrics from a Jefferson Airplane song.

See, this is why Marshak is so great: he’s a pure example of the Coen brothers’ inimitable talent for making the profound seem absurd, and the absurd seem profound. Even after Marshak gives the emptiest blessing one can imagine, we, as an audience, can’t help but feel that we’ve experienced something soul-changing.

The plot’s buildup, Mandell’s enigmatic performance, and our own collective respect for our elders are masterfully harnessed to fashion a joke that doesn’t feel like a joke at all. Is Marshak messing with Danny? It doesn’t seem that way: the reference to Danny’s favorite band instantly connects the two. Is Marshak senile? It doesn’t seem that way: he knows who Danny is, and returns a precious MacGuffin to him. Is Marshak, maybe, not quite as wise as we’ve been led to believe? It doesn’t seem that way, either: there’s a playfulness about him, one found only in the greatest of gurus, that says he knows better.

I don’t know if any of this is what the Coens intended their viewers to feel, but all great art allows for interpretation. I believe that Marshak, and the terrific galaxy of storytelling at which he is centered, prove the Coens to be great artists after all.

George Clooney as Harry Pfarrer

“Can’t always wear a condom, right?”

Here’s a certainty for you: George Clooney, once known as the mom’s-fantasy pediatrician on the TV series ER, will instead be remembered — unquestionably, unarguably, and immovably — as an idiot.

Thank the Coens for this, as they sought Clooney out to play no fewer than four total dopes: Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Miles Massey in Intolerable Cruelty, Baird Whitlock in Hail, Caesar!, and Harry Pfarrer, my favorite of the four, in Burn After Reading.

Like the other idiots on his Coen resume, Pfarrer is genial, persuasive, and very concerned with his personal appearance. Unlike them, he’s obsessed with floors, philandering, and food allergies. When he’s not drawing ladies into his bed while his wife is out of town, he’s boasting about his work as a bodyguard, or constructing sex devices in his basement.

There’s no way to put a nice face on it; the man is simply weird. He might be a perfect example of a sociopath coasting by on charm and good looks.

Now, is that the sort of man who should be trusted with a big gun? Ask Brad Pitt, who also stars in this movie. As you might expect, this is no Ocean’s Eleven: the single exchange between the two men is wordless and brief. It always yanks a gasp from its audience, though, and Harry’s subsequent breakdown is both confusing and hilarious. Clooney may not be too proud of these roles (he famously proclaimed upon finishing this movie that “I’ve played my last idiot!”), but I think he should be grateful for them. Any good-lookin’ Joe can make a drama or romance; it takes a real actor to do funny. Good on ya, George, we love you and your idiocy.

Chelcie Ross as the Trapper

“She was often vexed with me. I seldom knew why.”

After Hail, Caesar! tanked, little was heard from the Coen brothers. For a frightful time, it seemed that they had slunk away forever, to join that gallery of failed directors who’d exhausted their goodwill.

Then Netflix, emboldened by the rising winds of streaming and Peak TV, put faith in the brothers once more. The result was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology that almost feels like the Coens’ revenge. It’s a six-course feast of beautiful shots and bizarre events, extreme violence and playful dialogue, crusty villains and charming cowpokes. And, like all the best Coen movies, it is a meditation on the Struggle — with a capital S — to put a make on that thing that’s always remaking itself.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t have a little fun.

Buster is rife with Coen-isms, some of them traditional, others esoteric. There’s florid, extensive speech that just kisses the listening ear. There are cold, oblique stabs at the Coens’ staunchest critics. There’s an errant, noisy dog who’s more trouble than he’s worth, and there’s a slow, sad nod to the success of stupid entertainment.

Then there’s the loudmouth: a hairy, ‘coon-hatted man known only as the Trapper. The story is The Mortal Remains: the final, and most mysterious of Buster‘s tales. It plays like a particularly interesting episode of The Twilight Zone. You get five individuals on a long coach trip, one of them the Trapper, who are drawn into an impassioned philosophical discussion. That’s about the size of the whole episode, but that’s all the Coens need to weave many strange and hilarious situations. Indeed, the whole blowup begins with an interminable speech from our feculent friend.

Like Mr. Mohra, the murmuring witness from Fargo, the Trapper tells his tale like a man hurling himself from a cliff, heedless of concerns like points or meaning. Yet, it’s all so very rich: just a minute of his yammering paints years of the man’s life. Through his words, you feel the loneliness, the rejection, and the disgust with mankind that grow out of a life spent in the wild. To him, human beings are really no different from ferrets. He even lifts a romantic anecdote — a period of years spent with a native woman who doesn’t understand English — as further proof of this. After all, the sounds she made during lovemaking weren’t all that different from those an animal would utter.

The other coach riders can barely contain their irritation. This trapper simply won’t shut up — until he does, and the sudden silence is as funny as the speech itself. It bothers me that Buster will never get the audience it truly deserves, as moments like this alone outshine most anything else in theaters right now. Hurry, Netflix, hurry, and get our boys back on the trail! We’d be lost in Fort Morgan without them.

Jon Polito as Creighton Tolliver

“Oh, those fiery Mediterraneans!”

Most won’t agree with me, but I consider The Man Who Wasn’t There to be one of the Coens’ best films. Most say that it’s dry, it’s boring, it’s slow, and it’s soooo long, but what I say is, “Look at all the fast-talking kooks in this movie!”

Yeah, yeah, I know, Billy Bob Thornton is given a pitiful role in a sad story, but there is so much Coen-esque nonsense around him that I can’t knock the whole movie for it. Just look at Creighton Tolliver, a loquacious entrepreneur on the ground floor of the dry-cleaning game. Cheerful, charming, and ferociously friendly, Tolliver just wants to find an investor for his latest scheme and make a little dough.

Well, maybe he wants more than that, considering the uncomfortable pass he makes at Thornton’s character. Hey, we all have our appetites.

Polito gives a lesson in precision acting in this movie. He changes expressions from frame to frame like a cartoon character. He grins, he cheers, he pouts…he becomes the fulcrum of the entire plot, simply by appearing at the worst times possible. Nowhere will you find a less assuming figure for such things as both Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2.

Now sadly passed, Polito was a tremendous part of the Coen actors’ stable, from the days of Miller’s Crossing, which I didn’t really care for. Most remember him as Da Fino, the P.I. who sucked at tailing in The Big Lebowski, but I’ll always think of him as Tolliver, the dry-cleaning pansy. Bless you, Polito. I hope you’re up there, soaking the angels’ gowns in perchloroethylene right now.