In Coen Brothers films, there’s a unique tension between what we see, what we hear, and how we feel. There’s an eerie sensation in the opening credits of ‘Miller’s Crossing’; the sweet music, those trees, the hat blowing away – it works, and yet it’s disquieting somehow. Throughout ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, the score is almost entirely comprised of folk music that’s played by characters onscreen, and even still, it finds ways to emotionally venture out of what one might expect to find in those restrictions. What’s happening here? The Coen Brothers’ long-time composer Carter Burwell speaks about this, in reference to a scene in ‘True Grit’:
“When you hear something that’s so different than what you’re seeing […] – film is full of so many stimuli that when they contradict each other, you get a very rich experience because you’re – I personally love states of confusion, and this is a bit confusing at first. Why are we doing this?”
Joel Coen, expanding on that idea:
“There’s often a discussion that we have when Carter’s doing his score, which is […] whether or not the music is essentially emphasizing or actually playing counterpoint to what’s going on, which has a completely different psychological effect, and this is counterpunctual […] It’s not fighting the image, but it’s not underlining the psychological moment, necessarily.”
Tonally inappropriate music for ironic effect in horror films might be the most well known kind of counterpoint in cinema, but the kind Joel Coen is discussing here is subtler, harder to pin down, and has nearly unlimited emotional nuance.
It’s economical for the Coen Brothers to use the folk music played by Llewyn Davis to bring us closer to him and his story, but they consistently find new ways to fold that music against the obvious emotional grain of the scenes, sometimes going in both directions at the same time. They’re not just counterpointing individual moments – they built an entire film around the technique.