The Coen Brothers' Subtle Politics

The Inside Llewyn Davis directors rarely depict the political process, but their portrayals of working-class characters struggling to get by does highlight a certain set of beliefs.
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From gray city streets to the dingy basement clubs where singers with names like Dylan, Baez, and Seeger got their starts, Ethan and Joel Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis faithfully recreates the folk music scene in Greenwich Village 1961. But the film leaves out one defining element of that real-life setting: politics.

The folk movement loudly linked itself to the civil-rights movement and other social-justice efforts. But the film's title character and his musician colleagues don’t spend time talking rights or revolution. Their songs, while hauntingly beautiful, forgo political references. The only time politics does enter the story is as the punch line to a depressing cosmic joke: Llewyn plays back-up guitar on a recording of the hilariously awful pop-folk song “Please Mr. Kennedy” in order to earn a few bucks to pay for his ex-lover’s abortion.

Llewyn himself is based on a real-life singer, Dave Van Ronk, who was very politically active, having even been arrested at the Stonewall Inn during the incident that sparked the Stonewall Riots. It’s tough to reconcile this side of Van Ronk with the Coens’ cynical character, who shows little inclination to help anyone except himself. As Matt Singer put it in his excellent piece for The Dissolve, for Llewyn, “[s]ociety is unjust, all right, but mostly to him.”

Of course, no artist is obligated to deal in politics, and it might’ve been wise for the Coens to avoid it. Jack Hamilton recently noted in Slate that the absence of politics allows the characters “to be human beings rather than pop-history clichés.” But still, leaving out the fight for social justice could be seen as a misrepresentation of folk music’s original values. And that’s troubling: Once the people who were actually in the Village in the ‘60s are gone, media depictions of the movement will be the main way society understands it.

The film’s narrow focus shouldn’t surprise any fans of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, as the directing duo clearly don’t think much of the political process. The rare politician who does show up in their stories is usually either violently corrupt (Miller’s Crossing) or a shameless hack (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Even Burn After Reading, which is set in Washington, D.C., leaves electeds out completely and instead satirizes the intelligence community and bureaucrats.

But Inside Llewyn Davis and the rest of the Coens’ films do have a social conscience. The brothers may not care about the structures of politics, but a deeply populist vein runs through their work. Their working-class heroes do not expect much out of life—just the fairness promised by the American Dream. The sole thing Jerry Lundegaard (Fargo) desires was to get out from under his father-in-law’s thumb and be financially independent. Ulysses Everett McGill (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is only trying to keep his family together. The Dude just wants his rug back. Of course, few of them succeed at their quests, as they find themselves continually thwarted by power structures like corporations (The Hudsucker Proxy), religious institutions (A Serious Man), and the law (almost every film they have made).

The truth is that the Coen brothers might be film’s greatest chroniclers of the era of income inequality. Born in 1954 and 1957, respectively, Joel and Ethan came of age in the 1970s, when income inequality began to spike. They started making films in the mid-1980s, when Reagan and Congress began implementing tax reform laws that began a redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top. They have embedded the economic realities of their time into their lead characters, most of which live just one success, financial or otherwise, away from happiness.

The best example of all might be their second feature, 1987’s Raising Arizona, which tells the story of H.I. McDunnough, an ex-con who has a problem with recidivism. After falling in love with Edwina, his prison guard (Holly Hunter), he leaves prison and dedicates himself to going straight and building a family. But he and his lady can’t conceive, so instead they steal a baby from a local businessman whose wife recently birthed quintuplets and declared on television that they had “more than they can handle.”

Predictably, things go awry. Their ability to keep and care for their new baby is threatened, and H.I. must return to a life of crime. He blames Washington, too, saying that he “tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn’t easy with that sombitch Reagan in the White House.” Despite some sympathy the Coens throw towards the baby’s original parents, we are always on the side of H.I. and Ed. Kidnappers are typically seen as villainous, but the value system of Raising Arizona suggests it’s reasonable for the poor to take a little from those who can spare it.

Llewyn never resorts to stealing, though he is certainly desperate. All he wants is to earn a living doing the one thing—singing and playing guitar—that he is undeniably good at. One moment in particular stands out: Right after Llewyn records that awful “Please Mr. Kennedy” song, the producers offer him a contract that includes royalties, which would mean big money down the line but less of an upfront payment. Llewyn turns it down because he needs the cash right now. This is a consistent problem for the poor; they can’t invest in their future because they’re scraping to make it through the present. Llewyn’s situation should resonate with the 76 percent of Americans who, according to a recent survey, currently live paycheck to paycheck.

Still, the question remains: If the Coens are such men of the people, why do they consistently ignore the very political structures that our democracy has in place to fix inequities? The brothers, who are notoriously cagey about discussing the meaning of their work, certainly aren’t telling. But we could make an educated guess or two.

Maybe they’re simply trying to achieve universality, and playing to the politics of the moment would get in the way of that. But it’s also possible that they intuit—correctly, I’d argue—that true populism is not served by politics, not anymore. It’s hard to take solace in democracy when Congress has an approval rating below 10 percent, when nearly half of all members of Congress are millionaires, and when everyone knows that politicians on both sides of the aisle do the bidding of corporate America. And so this apolitical populism that the Coens have been quietly, perhaps unconsciously, preaching for their entire career has now become mainstream; you can find plenty of people on the left and right that want to throw all the bums out. Once again, the Coens have been ahead of their times. It has only taken the American public three decades to catch up to them.

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Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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