Jesus Quintana. Anton Chigurh. Osbourne Cox. Most characters played by John Goodman. The entire supporting cast of The Big Lebowski. From sex pests and kidnappers to psychotic murderers and plain simple idiots, the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan have written and directed more eccentric and three-dimensional secondary (and even tertiary) characters throughout their prolific careers than you’ve had hot dinners – and that’s without even touching on their leads. With the odd exception (hello, PSH’s dopily affable Brandt, the PA in The Big Lebowski) a good Coen character can usually be marked by the fact that they’re not a very nice person, as the hot streak of misanthropy that runs through the veins of their work manifests itself in surprising, often hilarious and always memorable ways in their supporting characters.
All of which makes singling out one particular performance from the Coen’s rich back catalogue of stellar characters and films rather challenging. As you’ll have no doubt grasped from having followed the link here, we’d like to draw some attention to the sickeningly-talented Carey Mulligan’s thorny and nuanced portrayal of the Jean Berkey, folk musician, former lover, and current hater of Llewyn’s – Oscar Isaac, a less successful folk musician – in the achingly gorgeous Inside Llewyn Davis. From her soft and beautiful performance of Five Hundred Miles (not the Proclaimers song) with a dorky and knitwear-clad Justin Timberlake, to her brutal and “asshole”-heavy takedowns of the downtrodden Llewyn, Mulligan gets to display the full gamut of emotions the rich character of Jean is capable of in her all-too-brief screentime.
Jean is right – Llewyn is an asshole – and an arrogant, self-pitying and abrasive one at that. Though what’s most interesting about Mulligan’s ornery depiction of Jean is that along with her blatant contempt of Llewyn, she shows him just enough kindness and charity to offer us a glimpse of what they once saw in each other, and what could have possibly led to these two apparently totally incompatible people (almost) having a baby together. There will be more on that glimmer of kindness later, but let’s start with her devastating deconstruction of Llewyn’s inexplicably large ego, delivered with ferocious relish by Carey Mulligan – here as he asks her whose baby she is carrying:
To be clear, asshole, you fucking asshole, I want very much to have it if it’s Jim’s. That’s what I want. But since I don’t know, you not only fucked things up by fucking me and maybe making me pregnant, but even if it’s not yours, I can’t know that, so I have to get rid of what might be a perfectly fine baby. A baby I want. Because everything you touch turns to shit. Like King Midas’ idiot brother… I should have had you wear double condoms. Well, we shouldn’t have done it in the first place. But if you ever do it again, which as a favour to women everywhere you should not, but if you do, you should be wearing condom on condom. And then wrap it in electrical tape. You should just walk around always, inside a great big condom. Because you are shit. You should not be in contact with any living thing, being shit.
It’s a roast of vicious beauty. And when a deflated Llewyn dares to point out Jean’s own complicity in what they did that night, as he deadpans – “You know the expression, ‘it takes two to tango’?” she doesn’t even dignify him with a response:
Oh, fuck you.
In these scenes Llewyn never really offers much of an argument – as he has internalised and learnt to own his inherent asshole-ness – and so one-way is the torrent of verbal abuse from Jean that we actually end the pair’s scenes of confrontation feeling rather sorry for Llewyn as he placidly accepts her possibly over-harsh – but accurate – criticisms.
Throughout ILD these scenes are laden with a dark humour – we get why Jean hates Llewyn, but the huge extent to which her venomousness towards him (and his apathetic endurance of it) goes is never fully justified or explained. We assume there must be something else he’s done to her in the past – she’s too smart a character not to realise that she’s also to blame that’s she’s potentially pregnant with his child – but this lack of insight from the audience makes the cruelty with which she habitually treats him seem hilariously over-the-top. It is also emphasised when set alongside the aforesaid kindness she shows him – albeit in strictly rationed portions. Despite Jean’s hatred of Llewyn, her fundamental (and inexplicable to herself) faith in him as a human and a musician means that she begrudgingly allows him to stay on their couch and store his stuff in her apartment, and even asks a local bar owner if Llewyn can perform one night for a few dollars to keep him off the street. It’s this duality – of both disgust and compassion – that is imbued by Mulligan’s emotionally subtle performance that lends total credibility to the character. “Hatelove” (or “lovehate”?) is a strange and complex emotion: though as anyone with a strange and complex relationship in their past – or even just a particularly irritating sibling – would attest, it’s a pretty universal one.