This is a True Story

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I.

In 1987, during a white-out winter, a bloodied man stumbles through snowdrifts, toward a fence where he buries a briefcase full of cash and marks it with an ice scraper. Some years later, a desperate husband finds the stash, only to be blackmailed in 2006 by his wife and then a con man. The latter is caught by a pregnant and determined cop. This cop’s dad runs a coffee shop in 2006, but in 1979, he was one of the many officers involved in an infamous massacre that left a trail of blood through the small town of Fargo, North Dakota.

These are the stories told, in order, by Fargo, the Coen brothers’ film from 1996, and the first and second seasons of the Fargo television show, aired in 2014 and 2015 by FX and created by Noah Hawley.

The movie’s original set-up—its characters, its world—fractures and rebuilds inside the show. The story is continued, not retold. It digs into its roots, its lineage. It breaks apart the pieces of story that movies leave in absentia: the repercussions of violent acts decades before, the superstitions, the heritage.

This is a true story. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.

II.

In the world of Fargo, wilderness is active against the characters. It threatens, it looms, it engulfs. You may think you’re surviving, or you’re besting the elements, but then a patch of ice catches at your wheel, a bullet pierces the plush jacket that prevents your arms from touching your sides. Cars emerge from white out screens, driving between one danger and another. They skid, they ruin, they drift.

It’s 1987 and Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a car salesman desperate for money, thinks he has figured it out. He’s made a deal with two for-hire criminals, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stomare), to kidnap his own wife, in order to demand ransom money from his father-in-law, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell). It’s quick, easy money, if dirty, and he’s sure it’ll work because it has to. No one is granting his loans or accepting his grifts.

But Lundegaard doesn’t count on Showalter and Grimsrud reacting to exigent circumstances with a quick trigger. They kidnap Mrs. Lundegaard, then kill a cop that pulls them over, and then kill two innocent witnesses that drive past as Grimsrud is dragging the dead cop’s body back toward his squad car.

It’s a scene local police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) arrives at the next morning: two bodies shot, splayed in the snow next to their overturned car. Gunderson is quick and intelligent and is able to piece together the disparate clues left behind by criminals better at leaving a mess than executing a perfect crime. She’s earnest and sincere and doesn’t understand why anyone would do these things, but she doesn’t need to understand. She only needs to catch them.

There is a danger implicit in choosing to live in a place so bereft and desert-like. Landscapes become disparate beneath the snow. It’s easy to come undone in a place like this, normal and yet other. To have your blood pump out of your veins, down your face, into your hands.

Which is what happens to Showalter when faced with Gustafson, who refused to let Lundegaard go to the meet in his stead. Gustafson won’t hand over the briefcase full of cash and Showalter won’t hand over Gustafson’s daughter. It’s a stand-off that ends in a sloppy shoot-out, leaving Gustafson dead and Showalter clutching at his hemorrhaging cheek. Showalter buries the money beneath a snow drift, marking it with an ice pick. He plans to return to it later, but he can’t, because Grimsrud stuffs him headfirst into a wood chipper.

When Gunderson arrives, Showalter has been reduced to red, mulchy snow and an ankle, still wearing its sock.

With Grimsrud in the back of her squad car, Gunderson says: “So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here you are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it.”

Which is a refrain through each of these fractured stories: how does one understand the random, the brutal, the violent?

III.

It’s now 2006 and Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) is a belittled, bullied man living a small life in Bemidji, Minnesota. In his basement, next to the washer that never works, is a poster: a group of yellow fish swimming in one direction, and one red fish swimming in the opposite direction. In bold, white text, the poster asks: “What if you’re right and they’re wrong?”

After Lester murders his wife by bludgeoning her with a hammer, blood splatters across the poster, but he doesn’t take it down. It stays there, like a reminder to Lester: They’re wrong. You’re right.

Before murdering his wife, a door swung open in Lester after he met a hit man, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) in the Emergency Department’s waiting room. Lester, there with a broken nose, mentions the bully who did it to him. Lorne asks if he wants him taken out. Lester doesn’t mean to agree, but Lorne hears the hesitance behind his refusal, and kills the bully anyway.

Lorne is a hurricane passing through a small town. Without his influence, Lester would have been tormented and demeaned by former high school jocks, his wife, his brother, his sister-in-law, for the rest of his life. But with two deaths behind him, Lester knows what he is capable of, and he knows what he wants. He wants more. He doesn’t want a small life. That anger unspools his wife’s blood across the concrete floor of their basement, splatters it across the inscrutable fish poster.

And he almost gets away for it, if not for Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) and Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks), a deputy and an officer from two separate stations in two separate towns, each pulled into the impossible labyrinth Lorne creates and Lester destroys. Molly and Gus see through Lester’s fumbling anger, even if Molly’s boss, Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) doesn’t. Solverson understands the length pent-up anger can drive someone to; Oswalt can’t see past the nice, quiet insurance salesman who would never hurt a fly.

Malvo tears through their small communities, ripping holes in fabrics left stitched up, allowing in other hit men with other inquiries. A man is found, frozen in his underpants, in the woods near an abandoned car. Men are dangled over a hole cut into an ice lake. A Supermarket King is plagued by a bloody shower, by crickets raining in his store, by fish falling from the sky.

Solverson’s father, Lou (Keith Carradine), owns a small diner that he bought after retiring from the force. He sees the danger, the ineffability of it, and he sees his daughter running into the storm. He worries. He warns her, mentioning the Sioux Falls Massacre, the case that pushed him into retirement. When Molly goes off, chasing after Malvo, her father grabs his gun and sits outside her house. He’s there to protect what’s his, against the impossible.

IV.

Rye Gerhardt (Kieran Culkin) is standing in a parking lot, blanketed with snow, outside a waffle house where he has just shot down a local judge, a waitress, and a cook. His escape is interrupted by three shining orbs, pulsing with light in the sky, spinning, hovering. They belong to a ship, and it’s not a ship from Earth. Rye stumbles back. He looks at it. Not sure what he’s seeing, or why. Which is when a car skids down the street and into his body. His head crashes through the windshield. The car pauses. No one gets out. It shifts into gear. It keeps going.

So begins Season Two, which builds on the world Season One built: same rules, but a different game board.

The story is set in 1979, during the Sioux Falls massacre Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson in the second season) hinted at throughout the first. The historic massacre served as a warning baritone in the first season. In the second, we find out why.

Rye’s disappearance and death unlocks the rest of the season. The Gerhardts, an organized crime syndicate out of Fargo, North Dakota, think Rye was taken by the Kansas City Mafia, who they’ve been going up against for years. The Kansas City Mafia comes to town, led by Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine). The conflict quickly becomes factioned, fatal. The Gerhardts bring in their trump card, the Indian, Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon).

What they don’t know is where Rye went. They don’t know if he’s alive or dead. If he’s in the wind or if he’s been kidnapped.

Rye was hit by Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst). She drives all the way home. She thinks he’s dead, so she doesn’t bother disposing of the body. She leaves it on the windshield and goes inside to make dinner. It’s not until Rye wakes up and tries to escape, that Peggy’s husband, the weary Ed Blumquist (Jesse Plemons), finds any of this out. Ed kills him. Their fates are sealed. Peggy tries to explain the situation away, and because Ed loves her and wants to have children with her, he handles it.

Meanwhile, Lou and his father-in-law, Sheriff Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) can’t figure out the three bodies in the diner and the tire tracks outside in the snow. Solving the crimes becomes an imperative, especially as the body count ratchets up, but at home, Lou’s wife and Hank’s daughter, Peggy (Cristin Milioti) has incurable cancer, and Lou’s daughter, Molly, is too young to understand. They don’t have to go outside to find trauma; it’s found them, in their own living room.

These different stories crack and build and coalesce: the Gerhardts go after the Kansas City Mafia, both go after the Blumquists, and the police try to figure out what’s going on. Fighting becomes infighting. A traitor is shot in the head. A fixer is gunned down, for coming in too soon. Danger is next door, is outside, is waiting. It’s there. If anyone were to step half an inch in the wrong direction, that would be it. The end of their story.

The UFOs hover in the background of a shoot-out at a local motel. Lou Solverson is seconds from death, hands wrapped around his neck, choking, when they’re interrupted by ships, bobbing in the sky above. Lou, splayed out in the parking lot, stares up at the lights. He doesn’t know what he’s seeing, or why he’s seeing it. The Blumquists are cornered in a hotel room. The approaching gun men are distracted by the otherworldly lights long enough to let the besieged couple escape.

Ed stops. He looks up at the sky. He asks his wife if she’s seeing it. But Peggy’s eyes are on the ground, toward survival. She tugs on Ed. “It’s just a flying saucer,” she says. “Ed, we gotta go.”

Throughout the worlds of Fargo, characters are looking to understand. Faced with the unexplainable, they say, “I don’t understand.” They shake their heads. The violence, the confusion, the strangeness of it all doesn’t fit into the specific, strong lives they’ve built for themselves.

A wife has cancer. UFOs appear but never arrive. An intelligent Sheriff scribbles indecipherable symbols across his office, with an eye toward an impossible, universal language. A hired Indian asks his mark to cut his hair. A hit man, job done, is shuttled to an office with a door and a view of another office building. They’re cornered. They’re kept.

But despite all of this, the characters persist. They may not understand, but someone still has to put dinner on the table, someone still has to clock-out every night, someone still has to make sure the front door is locked.

“Goodnight, Mr. Solverson,” Betsy says to Lou as they settle into bed beside each other.

“Goodnight, Mrs. Solverson.” Lou replies. He pulls the covers up. Rolls over so he’s looking at his wife. “And all the ships at sea.”

V.

Each story is Shakespearean in the way it can be broken down into pieces and built again, only to be more compelling, more intense, more questioning. Each story told has similar parts: the deal gone wrong, the hit man, the career criminals, the good cops, and the regular people caught in the cross-fire. The bones here are so fine, so strong, that an endless reordering and retooling would create stories as compelling and hard and endearing.

The characters are all navigating their own lives, doing their best and their worst: what does happiness mean, they wonder, and how do we achieve it? How can I get what I want, and do I care if that want interferes with the wants of those I love? What does it mean to be a good person? Is it a small thing, or is it big? Is it enough to try?

They don’t find answers. They won’t. Just like they won’t come to understand the motives behind the deaths that pile up, the bodies that fall, and the violence borne from blindness.

It’s enough to survive.

Turn the criminal in and then go home. You’re pregnant and your husband’s painting was accepted for the three cent stamp. Retire from the force. Open a coffee shop, deliver mail, have children. Take care of what’s yours. Be a good man, a good woman. Whatever that means.


Kelsey Ford is a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. A recent Los Angeles transplant, via Brooklyn, her work has previously appeared in Her Royal Majesty and Storychord.


A Tourist with a Typewriter

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“Are you in the pictures?”

The photograph hanging above the desk is the only decorative element in Room 621. The room’s two windows are blind, looking out onto the drab bricks of the adjacent building, and except for this picture of a blonde woman seated on a beach with her back to the viewer, the walls are unadorned.

The woman’s right arm is raised, shielding her eyes as she looks out to sea. An umbrella planted nearby does not cast its shadow over her. The blue horizon, where the sea meets the sky, is the sharpest feature in an otherwise soft image. It’s an unexceptional picture—standard mid-century hotel kitsch—but, to use the parlance of another Coen Brothers film, it “really tie[s] the room together.” And, as with many otherwise innocuous things in Barton Fink, it assumes enigmatic overtones as the plot develops.

*

Placed atop a pile of books on my desk is a photograph of the sea. My girlfriend, who took it on a beach on Cape Cod, gave it to me. We live in San Francisco, near another sea, but both of us (then unknown to each other) grew up with the Atlantic. For several years, in fact, I lived within earshot of that haunted and historied ocean.

The photograph she gave me is, like the one hanging above Barton’s desk, unremarkable: it’s of an autumnal New England sky, heavy white clouds tinged with gray piling up in the distance. Looking at it, I can almost feel the wind scraping grains of sand along the beach.

I sit at my cluttered desk—piling ever higher with books—and attempt to write. When I feel unable, which is often, I find myself drawn to that image. There isn’t a mysterious figure in the foreground tempting my imagination, nor is the scene as serene as that on the wall in Room 621, but the magnetic pull of the horizon, the way it promises something else, is, I think, similar to what draws Barton out.

*

The Coen Brothers wrote Barton Fink for John Turturro, whose nervous energy gives the titular character, a naïve but committed leftist playwright who rails against high art in favor of one capable of elevating the so-called common man, a believable sincerity. Barton has come to Los Angeles—Steve Buscemi’s understated Chet, Hotel Earle’s ubiquitous concierge, enunciates those four syllables as if they were four separate words—to write for the pictures. Barton’s initial concern that working in Hollywood would be a betrayal of his artistic and political commitments has been quickly (too quickly?) brushed aside in favor of a thousand dollars a week—a significant sum in 1941. “The common man will still be here when you get back,” his manager in New York assures him.

And so he goes west. As if to reconcile himself to his decision, he checks into the Hotel Earle, a gloomy, ghostly place home to two types of visitors: trans or res. “Transient or resident,” Chet explains. Barton, feeling neither here nor there, replies that he’ll be here “indefinitely.”

*

A little over six years ago, I moved from New Jersey to San Francisco. I was coming out of a messy break-up and decided, with the desperation of a man pushed into (or, more honestly, backed into) a corner, that I would move three thousand miles away. I didn’t have a job lined up, I only vaguely knew two people in San Francisco, and I had no place to live. The line between bravery and stupidity is often razor thin; I’ve never been able to decide on which side of it this decision fell.

Although my similarities with Barton Fink end with the distance we covered—regrettably, no one was waiting with a check upon my arrival—I think our decisions were based on a common impulse: in order to see more clearly what you love, you sometimes have to look at it from a great distance. To allow the here to become a there.

*

The photograph lures Barton immediately. It is the only opening in the room, a view from a porthole in a creaking ghost ship. Early in the film, one assumes that Barton is drawn to the vista as he is drawn to the plight of the working stiff. Yet as the story unfolds we learn that Barton’s commitment to the common man is largely theoretical; this figure is an idealization, an emanation of the writer’s intense inner battle. This, of course, isn’t to say that Barton’s allegiance to the class struggle is feigned; perhaps the most damning criticism one could level against him is that he is too sincere.

Barton’s real commitment, though, is to his Art. The struggle, he shouts from his high horse, is here, finger pressed firmly against his temple. This is reflected in the camera’s focus when he is transfixed by the photograph: for the most part, we look at Barton looking at the picture.

Which is to say: the photograph is watching him.

*

Throughout the film, Barton’s pretensions as a writer are undercut by those around him. While having lunch with Geisler (an exuberant Tony Shaloub)—the unwilling, overworked producer of the Walter Beery wrestling picture—Barton asks to talk to another writer to get some sense of what’s expected of his new role. Exasperated, Geisler tells him that if he threw a rock in the restaurant he would likely hit a writer. He adds, with delicious contempt, “Do me a favor, Fink. Throw it hard.”

W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, doing a spot-on Faulkner), a man Barton calls the greatest novelist of his time, is a wretched, raving souse without any dignity—or, it turns out, anything left in the tank except for the sloshing contents of a bottle of whiskey.

Even the studio boss Lipnick (Michael Lerner), who is ingratiating when it serves him and whose insistence that Barton is not working on a B-movie clearly demonstrates that Barton is, in fact, working on a B-movie, ruthlessly pulls the plug as soon as he realizes Barton is wasting his time. “You’re not a writer, you’re a write-off,” he spews at the end of the film, spitefully refusing to cut Barton free.

The only figure in the movie who defers to Barton’s self-importance is affable Charlie Meadows, a hulking door-to-door insurance salesman rendered pitch-perfectly by John Goodman. (“Fire, theft, and casualty are not things that only happen to other people,” he prophesies.)

*

What strikes more fear into the fragile psyche of a writer than seeing another writer sit in a room alone and slowly lose his mind? Despite the film’s apocalyptic culmination, it carries the weight of an allegory of the writing life. The real world, the one that cares very little for the writer’s task, exists. It’s here, it exerts gravity: in that photograph, living next door, pounding on the door.

*

In his Pensees, Pascal laments that “all of humanity’s problems come from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” It’s the photograph—and, in part, what’s on the far side of the photograph—that lures Barton out of his concentrated solitude.

At the beginning, of course, all Barton desires is to sit and work in peace, alone with his mighty themes. But the clamor of the world comes to him, through the thin wall, in the sound of a man weeping in the next room. Or is he laughing? As with much in Barton Fink, the answer is ambiguous, endlessly interpretable, even contradictory.

The horizon, claims French poet Yves Bonnefoy, exists as a temptation, drawing us away from the here and now towards an imagined country—Bonnefoy calls it the arriere-pays. Thearriere-pays (translated imperfectly into English as the “hinterlands”) is not a real country—or even a country; part of its allure is its endless mutability and its ability to keep its distance. You can never reach the other side of the horizon. Therefore, this place or non-place existing on the far side of the unapproachable horizon is similarly out of reach.

For Barton, the horizon exists on several levels: the enigmatic woman whose face he can never know, the unapproachable distant edge of the sea, and what’s just over there, the next room over. (The closest we come to seeing the inside of the room next door happens just after Barton discovers that the woman he slept with the night before has been butchered in his bed. A cold blue light spills out.)

The horizon also represents an escape. And, we sense, there’s little Barton wants more than to escape the situation he has gotten himself into.

*

Despite my cynicism about our ability to escape certain uncomfortable facts about ourselves, part of the reasoning behind my move from one coast to another was that I would get a fresh start somewhere new. I never say that aloud, because it feels naïve. But now, seeing it in writing, I understand it’s more complex.

The over-there need not always be taken so literally—often it’s more effective as a metaphor. Yet all of us at one time or another feel pulled toward something new and unknown, something that will resonate inwardly, reminding us that we are bells struck by the world whose tones change depending on where we are rung.

*

The Hotel Earle is an uncanny place. Its yellow-and-green wallpapered hallways are putrid. It’s full of incongruous elements: mosquitoes—which, Geisler emphatically states, do not exist in Los Angeles; a half-dead elevator operator (or, more optimistically, half-alive); seeping walls; and pairs of empty shoes lining its ghostly corridors.

In a film full of uncanny elements, perhaps the most jarring scene is not the revelation of a butchered woman in Barton’s bed, as shocking as that is, but something more uncomfortably close to home: when Barton finally feels a surge of inspiration (only after the fateful crime), he sits at his desk burning with feverish intensity and slips his feet into a pair of shoes, which he realizes are not his.

The layers of symbolism in this scene are rich and understated. (Barton’s ability to create an art capable of elevating the common man is debatable, but he certainly does not measure up otherwise.) What makes it the uncanniest scene in the film lies in the nature of its transgression: it severs the false distance between the mind and the body. At the moment Barton slips his feet into the shoes of a poor working stiff, the distinction is abolished. His feet, down below, are revealed to be just as much a part of his being as his head, where the struggle takes place. And his feet don’t lie: something is off.

*

Karl “Madman” Mundt rises like a creature from the deep—remember, he resides somewhere within that blue distance hanging on the wall in his neighbor’s room—to prey on Barton. Whether or not we think Barton is deserving of his cruel fate, there are two indisputable facts: one, Barton summoned the beast up from the depths; and two, full of confidence in his ability to speak for the common man, Barton was, like other intellectuals of his time, blind to that common man’s hidden recesses.

A film as ambiguous as Barton Fink invites multiple readings, especially of the relationship between Barton and Charlie. The two are lovers; Charlie is the devil and the Hotel Earle his private hell; Charlie is a manifestation of Barton’s overworked, feverish brain; Charlie, the good-natured everyman within whom lurks a Karl Mundt, is an embodiment of the perversion of National Socialism; etc. Each of these interpretations has its particular merits and each casts the film into a new light, shimmering and shifting like the perpetually moving sea.

*

Dante reserves the sixth level of his Inferno for heretics, whose punishment is to suffer eternally in flaming tombs. After Charlie—or, at this point, Karl “Madman” Mundt—breaks the bars on Barton’s bed, allowing the unshackled victim to escape, Barton stands in the flaming hallway and watches Charlie enter his room.

Before being freed—not out of mercy—Barton asks Charlie “Why?” Why—this? The murders, the cruelty, the mysterious box? Echoing and perverting an earlier statement that “understanding requires empathy,” Charlie replies, “Most guys I just feel sorry for… I feel for ’em. So I try to help ’em out.”

Then, crushing Barton’s illusions about his role as an artist, he concludes with sadness: “You’re just a tourist with a typewriter. I live here.”


StephenSparks.jpg

Stephen Sparks lives in San Francisco. His essays and interviews have appeared in Tin House, 3:AM Magazine, and the LA Review of Books.


The Quare Fellow

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

When, as a guest on Inside The Actors Studio, Gabriel Byrne was prompted for his favorite phrases, he chose prolix, an adjective connoting a superfluity of words, and bollocks, the Hibernian slang for testicles that can mean claptrap, rubbish, a series of lies, an idiotic person, or, in active form, the feat of fouling something up. The Coen Brothers, Byrne’s writer-directors on Miller’s Crossing, could easily have chosen the same: above all in their work the sibling filmmakers elegize the cock-up and the grandiloquent.

After the success of Raising Arizona, the Coens were afforded the most lavish budget of their careers. They chose to make a Prohibition turf war inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, in which lyrical gangsters raise hell. The setting is vaguely placeable: New Orleans stands for a northern underworld, not New York, maybe Chicago. The business—illegal liquor rackets, paid protection—is largely offscreen, but the characters are universally criminal. The Coens paint their 1920s mossy—a burnished, period-appropriate, artistically expressionistic hue of nostalgia. For Miller’s Crossing is a tribute film, a mafia movie made of noir’s most elegant frames: Scarface, The Conformist, Le Samourai, and The Godfather refashioned in the brothers’ comically bloody hand.

The Coens tend to begin a story with a crime—a robbery (The Big Lebowski), a counterfeit (The Hudsucker Proxy), a kidnap (Raising Arizona), a murder (No Country For Old Men). In Miller’s Crossing, a would-be offense is meant to correct an ongoing trespass. The low-level gangster Giovanni ‘Caspar’ Gasparo petitions to put a hit on a bookie who’s cashing in on a fixed fight. You get that? The world works according to a logic as upside down and various as the men and women who live there. It is a sentimental and savage place—a big-hearted sap is a Tommy gun maestro; a slap tattoos affection and aggression; a shrug speaks volumes more than a speech.

The only sure thing is a thrown match—if you can’t count on that, Caspar reasons, the world descends into chaos. Determining a guilty party becomes a matter of deciphering the involved players’ ‘ethics.’ A punitive hit is the remedy. Caspar wants to kill Bernie (John Turturro), the bookmaker who’s crossed him; but Bernie’s sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) steps out with capo dei capi Leo (Albert Finney) who is asked to approve the murder. Tom (Gabriel Byrne), the dry-eyed lieutenant, allows Leo to choose his own course. Prizing romance over business, Leo elects to protect Bernie and thereby escalates the violence between the Irish and Italian gangs.

Is Leo right-minded or biased, level-headed or overconfident? “I can still exchange body blows with anyone in this town. Except you, Tom,” Leo allows. Here Finney straddles the period between leading man—his early beauty and authority in Tom Jones and Two For The Road— and the potato-faced heavies he plays in the recent Bourne films. What’s constant is the diction, his beautifully old Hollywood accent, not English, not Irish, not American — a voice crafted for make believe. It adds a gentility to Leo’s big-hearted protection and to his pique when people mistake a smile for weakness. For what is an old-fashioned mobster but an enfant terrible, like Max in Where The Wilds Things Are, whose desires are unchecked and limitations set by outside aggression? Leo is the perfect name for a gang boss who’s generous, vainglorious, sentimental but shrewd when he needs to be. And Finney plays him as an open-hearted Yank, bolstered by the security of having been in town the longest.

For among other things, Miller’s Crossing thinks about Americanness—how we fetishize origins because we are so distanced from them, how hierarchy has followed immigration patterns. There is nary a person of color in this gangland—the ethnicities we find are the subcultures of 1920s whiteness: gays, Jews, Italians and Irish, all in a lily-white tussle to the top. The Coen brothers embroider this paisley fabric of clannishness with peculiar values and peppery idioms. Rumpus, twist, flunky, daffy, dangle, stinko, rug, high hat — the pulpy words match the Coens’ aestheticizing task, but there is consequence to all the talk. The dramatic question is about ethnic and personal endurance; the methods of survival are literally cutthroat.

Like the Corleone’s Irish-American consigliere Tom Hagan, Tom Reagan is Leo’s right hand and most trusted friend. You can’t fault Leo for mistaking where he stands in his confidant’s estimation. He’s an Irish-American talking to an Irishman—they’re related but inequivalent conditions. It’s a matter of culture, in which men in general and Irish men in particular speak feelings in code, and of personal psychology. ‘A conversation between two Irishmen is one where neither party says what he means nor means what he says but each goes away knowing exactly what was discussed.’ A Dubliner attributed this line to Brendan Behan. While I can’t confirm the source, the saying matches Tom’s methods for navigating the American gangland—the trouble and advantage in being misunderstood. Brooding, moody, too smart to be happy, Tom is allergic to spelling things out. It’s a reflex and a survival instinct, this immigrant advisor who maintains a poker face while figuring out all the underworld angles.

When Byrne first appeared as an actor, his looks might have propelled him toward the starrier parts Daniel Day Lewis inhabited. But Byrne is not, after all, a hyper-emotional or physical actor like Day Lewis. And since primary colored conflicts are only a fraction of acting—a good deal more has to do with thinking and listening—Byrne’s talents found a niche. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, the Americans and the Irish are divided by a common language. And Byrne is best deployed when his characters act according to what we might call an Irish sensibility—not cynical but irreverent, driven by an awareness of the gap between what’s spoken, what’s meant and what’s done. Liam Neeson may carry the mantle of decency—it’s hard to imagine Byrne ever swinging a righteous fist—but Byrne has a corner on the well-aimed epithet and the well-wrought shaggy dog tale. He is a marvelous actor to play tolerant regard for universal hypocrisy.

The film’s ongoing gag is that Tom, who sees all outcomes of chancy human behavior, is an entrenched gambler on a dire losing streak. After a night losing at cards, he searches for the winners who made off with his hat. Reagan bangs on a door and finds Verna, sullen faced, pincurled, compellingly boss, nearly beautiful. When he asks about the fedora, she tells him to drop dead. He knocks again: I need a drink. Why didn’t you say so, Verna replies this time, allowing him through the door.

In the Coens’ films, there’s always a hidden password, because all societies are secret. The sibling pair (Joel and Ethan; Verna and Bernie) place their protagonist and their audience in the midst of this dilemma—parsing, interrogating, grifting, suffering an order that doesn’t remain constant. All of the Coens’ movies, it seems, work like an iteration of Kafka’s “Before the law” parable. Here is a journey made only for the hero; the tortuous path is calibrated to the degree the protagonist can stand it. The Coens place themselves on various sides of Miller’s crimes: within the perspective of investigator, perpetrator, victim, witness, profiteer, judge and so on. This relentless shift of subjectivity proposes an overarching worldview—as if Joel and Ethan would say we all play a rotating role, dramatic or comedic, triumphant or victimized, according to merit, malice and chance.

The great mystery of the movie is the logic of Tom’s behavior. Do you always know why you do things, he wonders aloud. Addicted to risk, one supposes, he is drawn to the most dangerous woman he knows, Verna. He can’t carry out a gangland murder that will save his own skin. He vows he’s finished with Leo but still helps to win the gang war. And despite these compulsions, he refuses to prioritize any emotional link. In this fiction about paradoxical people, Tom Reagan is guru and touchstone.

Like Lebowski’s carpet, Tom’s hat accrues a tangle of meanings. Its possession means the ownership of the owner; its value is the promise of allegiance and agency. The hat doesn’t seem to stay attached to Tom’s head. From the opening coda of the film, it skitters and kites along a forest floor, is swapped according to his bad luck, is co-opted like his free will. This is life according to Miller’s Crossing: friendships are canceled and reinvented; allegiances sworn, reviled, reinstated; lives snuffed out and reborn. There’s no neutrality unless you eclipse yourself, by dying or faking your own death or by killing your enemies and making your allies indebted. Only then, like Tom, can you fix your hat atop your head and choose to walk away.


Karina Wolf is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She has written copy and essays about food, fashion, film and art. She is the author of the children’s book The Insomniacs, and she lives in New York City.


Film Noir as Black Comedy

by Kevin Curtis

Illustration by Brianna Ashby

Illustration by Brianna Ashby

“I remember the New York Film Festival where Blood Simple and Stranger Than Paradise premiered. All of a sudden the Coen Brothers get up on stage, and I recognize them from my local supermarket…I was like, “Oh my God, it’s those stoners from the neighborhood!”– Ted Hope

A good title for a memoir of my wayward intellectual youth would have to be “I Was a Teenage Postmodernist!” It would be both a confession and an apologia for my ironic detachment in those days, although in a sense I am not sorry. My life back then was an inaction-packed adventure in hyperreality where I devoured theory and media like a pretentious fiend. I wound up in a cultural studies program in college writing academic essays on the existentiovoyeuristic conunundra of Spaceballs and David Letterman. I think I might have even used the word “filmic” once or twice.

The Coen Brothers, a pair of sly semioticians obsessed with philosophy and vulgar modernism, inspired and exhilarated me in those formative years. Their work imagines an intertextual realm where pop culture collapses in upon itself, creating a spastic vortex. They present fantastical worlds onscreen that don’t actually exist and could only be brought to life as a movie. Perhaps the Coens represent a cockamamie form of pure cinema in the vein of animation, with representations and signifiers stretching beyond the infinite.

Coen Brothers’ movies aren’t meant for those who use terms like “cartoon” or “comic book” contemptuously. The Coens are lowbrows with big ideas, intellectuals who are suckers for a cheap gag, deviant pranksters who blend high and low culture without discrimination. The result onscreen is a mutated alloy of playful pastiche and self-reflexive non-sequiturs. Whether you want to write off their work as absurdist riffs on stale conventions, self-conscious condescension, or smug simulacra, the Coens warp time and space in their movies, generating something altogether new through smart ass cinematic alchemy. Engaging with their films is a crash course in ridiculous metaphysics.

Blood Simple, their 1984 debut feature, is an anomaly amongst 1980s independent filmmaking. Sharing the first wave indie kiddie pool with Jim Jarmusch, Erroll Morris, Spike Lee, John Sayles, Hal Hartley, and Lizzie Borden–filmmakers that radically departed from Hollywood aesthetics–the Coens still emerged as the odd men out. Their entertainingly irreverent movies made no substantive references to politics or social issues. Rather than dismissing popular conventions, the Coens chose to forgo the avant-garde and embraced the rules of the game. Blood Simple might not pack the punch of, say, The Thin Blue Line getting an innocent man off death row, the portrayal of a bloody coal miners’ strike in Matewan, or the racial commentary of She’s Gotta Have It, but what more did you want from a noir knockoff? The Coens had the audacity to adopt commercialism instead of shunning it, creating a godforsaken soul-sucking commodity informed by time-tested, mainstream subject matter. For a movie financed entirely outside the studio system (mostly from a consortium of Midwestern dentists), Blood Simple is grounded in the basest of genre conventions. It seems almost too familiar, with clichéd iconography and musty conventions more generic than genre.

In Blood Simple, the formalist noir setting seems, at first, firmly intact. The movie appears to be a faithful replication of the code—in line with neo-noirs like Chinatown, Body Heat, or The Last Seduction—but something altogether different is happening here, something downright silly. All the basic conventions are present: chiaroscuro lighting carved out of shadow, shifty private detective, love triangle, double cross, femme fatale, moral ambiguity, nihilist sense of impending doom, girl and a gun, et cetera, et cetera. It should just be regurgitated pulp fiction straight from the dime store, yet when you look beyond the genre trappings, Blood Simple has some genuinely weird footnotes sprinkled throughout, mocking comments scribbled in the margins of the text. It is the product of ironic artists that can’t keep a straight face while spinning their yarn.

Abby and Ray are the doomed lovers at the epicenter of forces beyond their comprehension. Through dramatic irony, the characters are unaware of the true powers manipulating them; the audience watches them squirm like insects beneath a lifted rock. Abby is married to Marty, who owns the bar where Ray works. Marty is a control freak and, perhaps, mentally ill (at least according to Abby’s version of the events, before she and Ray hop in the sack). Marty hires a PI to tail them (the original private detective in a Volkswagen Beetle) and, when he learns of their adulterous affair, he hires the investigator to kill them. The PI eventually betrays him and Marty winds up buried in a shallow grave. The whole movie leads up to a final shoot-out that is essentially an excuse for some gory effects and a bit of snazzy cinematography, involving streams of light cascading through bullet holes (film school!). I’m uncertain what was more painful to watch: the grisly footage of M. Emmet Walsh's bloody hand impaled by a twisting knife or a photo of a shirtless Dan Hedaya. The Coens did leave out one important detail, though: any sincere reason to care about these characters or their fates. They are mostly tired archetypes with little or no backstory, the script is more half-baked than hard-boiled, the plot is unoriginal, and the movie has no real depth—but the damn derivative thing still works.

The Coens’ oddball sensibility shatters the somber tone of standard noir by undercutting the movie’s dramatic tension with shades of irreverent humor. The overly-stylized world onscreen, with its stark shadows and barren landscapes, is just a tad askew. Something is slightly off-kilter in this simulation of Texas with its oil wells, cowboy hats, good ol' boys, affected Southern drawls, and honkytonks with ridiculous names like Neon Boots. Yosemite Sam might as well make an appearance. There are also more than a few self-conscious sight gags, like the moment when the camera glides across a bar at a road house, lifts itself over a passed out drunk, and then resumes its original level before proceeding further, calling attention to itself as a blatant cinematic device. After a knee to the groin, Marty’s vomit is spewed directly at the camera. The shaky-cam Joel Coen helped operate on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead makes a guest appearance during a fight sequence.

More interested in mise-en-scene than humanity, Blood Simple is a damn good thesis project that mostly succeeds despite its wooden characters, flat acting, and hackneyed tropes. It could be considered an exercise, but watching someone on the treadmill can be fascinating and hilarious under the right circumstances (see Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading). The darkly comic interjections breathe life into an otherwise stale movie: Ray’s car stalling out at Marty’s grave, a bored MC droning on at a strip club, a bug zapper that fries a fly as Marty plots to kill Abby and Ray, a paperboy delivering a newspaper that rings out like a gunshot, or the sublime instance when Ray can’t bring himself to bludgeon Marty to death with a shovel, so does the next most humane thing, and buries him alive. Sheer ludicrousness hovers over the characters’ heads every bit as much as the blade-like ceiling fans so prominently featured in the movie. With Blood Simple, the farcical, plagiaristic template for many future Coen Brothers movies is still in its infancy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the subject of Ethan Coen’s thesis at Princeton, once wrote, “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Perhaps the Coen Brothers set out to create serious movies but, due to their haphazard philosophy, a demented carbon copy palimpsest is unveiled instead. Attempting to find a deeper meaning to Blood Simple, or any Coen Brothers movie for that matter, is almost to miss the point entirely – it offers no resolution and no positivity, a truly absurd conclusion. Watching Blood Simple again for the first time in more than a decade, I was surprised to find that some of the music cues were changed from the version I watched years ago. “It’s the Same Old Song” by the Four Tops was reinstated in the movie since copyright issues had been settled. It replaced a Neil Diamond cover of the Monkees’ bubblegum hit “I’m a Believer.” I found it appropriate that “I’m a Believer” was gone from the movie because having seen nearly every damn movie they’ve ever made, it seems to me that the Coen Brothers believe in nothing.

That must be exhausting...and exhilarating.


Kevin Curtis studied film at NYU and lives in Baltimore with his wife. His movie reviews have appeared in Reverse Shot. He is currently writing a novel.



Now Playing: Hail Caesar!

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

A Brief Defense of Capitalist Fun

Hail, Caesar! is a movie about movies. But most movies are about something else—they’re about love or violence, music or action, money or people, or, you know, all of those things. So when I tell you that Hail, Caesar! is a movie about movies, well...

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Movies are expensive. Movies are so expensive. Arguably, movies are too expensive. There are honestly one hundred articles about movies being too expensive every single day. It’s outrageous. For the price of a film in Chicago—let’s say $12.50 at the theater closest to my apartment—I could eat two very cheap meals. Or I could pay my share of the electricity bill and have enough money to do laundry. Or I could put $12.50 into my savings account like an adult. And yet, I swipe a card through an automated machine and allow myself to disappear into the darkness of cinema for a few hours. I can’t help it. It’s an impulse.

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Hail, Caesar! is a drama about a career man searching for more. In 1951, the motion picture industry is booming, and at Capitol Pictures, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a Hollywood fixer: a hybrid of public relationships, human resources, and driving around in the middle of the night making sure movie stars are getting into less trouble than normal. The job is stressful. It’s a 24 hour affair. He’s trying to quit smoking but damn it, sometimes a man has to have three cigarettes in the middle of the day.

Eddie has a way out there. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Lockheed—a hybrid space/weapons/airplane corporation—has offered him a job with everything he seemingly wants: regular hours, better pay, and much, much less stress. What’s a man supposed to do when his dream job feels like anything but?

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If you walked twenty minutes down the main hill in the town I went to college in, you’d reach a movie theater called The Rave. With a student ID, any movie at any time of day was five dollars. That feels like an alternate reality now. It feels like when my grandfather would tell me about double features costing a dime. But it’s how it was, so we took advantage of it, me and my friends. We’d trudge down the hill—sun, rain, snow, wind—and see whatever was playing nearly every weekend for the first two years of college.

I paid money to see Leap Year and Iron Man 2. I paid to see Black Swan and True Grit. I paid to see The Social Network after walking twenty minutes in the pouring rain to get to the theater just a minute before the film started. My friends and I bought tickets to see Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part One at midnight and dressed up in cloaks and fake dark marks. This was our get-out-of-campus free card (well, get-out-of-campus $5 card) and we used it to the best of our abilities. Movies were there, movies were cheap, and movies were a better use of our time than binge-drinking on a Saturday night.

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Hail, Caesar! is a comedy about identity crisis. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich—very worthy of your attention) is Capitol Pictures’ go-to cowboy. He’s got it all: the lopsided smile, the lasso, the ten gallon hat. But Capitol Pictures doesn’t need a cowboy anymore; they need a romantic lead. And so: Hobie trades his blue jeans for a tuxedo and walks onto the set of a stuffy romantic drama.

If Hail, Caesar! has a hero—I mean, the classic traditional brave hero—it’s Hobie. He’s charming and kind. In a world of Hollywood fakes and cheats, he’s as pure and as good as they come. When set up by the studio on a date with another famous actress, Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio), it’s anything but the studio couple set-up you’d expect. The two are funny and charming and seem to genuinely like each other. When asked about their relationship by twin gossip columnists (Tilda Swinton—two of her!), Hobie tells them they’re “fixing to be friends.” Fixing to be friends! Has a more genuine sentence ever been said?

He’s desperately out of place, practically on a foreign planet in his new role as a romantic lead, trying to figure out exactly who he is to Capitol Pictures and who he is to himself. And yet, at the end of the day, Hobie still belongs to the studio. His worth, to them, is not his quality of character but his bankability. He’s a cog, the poor thing, but the best cog there is.

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I cannot overemphasize how little money I had when I was studying abroad in London. I was jobless, a student living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and relying on a very small source of savings. And yet, I saw movies once if not twice a week. One tube stop away was a giant multiplex with milkshakes. Imagine! A milkshake at a movie theater! At the time, movies cost about eight pounds and milkshakes cost three pounds, so let’s say each movie cost me $18.

In London, I saw Carnage and 50/50. I went to go see Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol a few hours apart. I took myself to go see Hugo in 3D by myself on a Saturday morning while my flatmates slept. Let’s not tell my mom this is where all my money went when I was abroad.

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Hail, Caesar! is a communist conspiracy movie, working to undo itself from the inside out. Capitol Pictures star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped by a group of communist writers with hopes of using ransom money to support their cause. They feel like films are empty, capitalistic ventures used to keep the general populace from enlightenment. (I mean—for what it’s worth—it is called Capitol Pictures.) And Baird’s not the brightest bulb in the studio, so talking him into signing the communist manifesto isn’t exactly a feat.

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I paid $12.50 to see Magic Mike XXL three times in theaters. That’s $37.50.

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Hail, Caesar! is a movie where Channing Tatum sings and tap-dances for six minutes straight.

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When Baird finally returns to the studio, he has a sit down with Eddie to explain communism to him. Baird has finally seen that movies are a capitalist evil. They’re an expression of money and he’s become a symbol of money. Pictures are worthless, really, and only further increase the wealth gap between those involved and those not.

Eddie slaps him across the face. How many times? I might have forgotten. At least five.

“You have worth,” Eddie explains, “because the picture has worth.”

At my worst, in the wake of a traumatic breakup, I saw Obvious Child. I saw Sicario hungover at ten in the morning. I paid to see Wild with all of my closest female friends and cried throughout the entire film. I saw Mad Max: Fury Road at a press screening and gripped the armrests through the entire first hour. I sat, mouth gaping, at the wondrous black humor ofForce Majeure at a movie theater in Belgium.

The truth of the matter is that no one ever needs to see a movie, but arguing that truth is like saying no one ever needs to eat chocolate or go for a bike ride on a nice day or spend time with someone who makes them laugh. Any movie can be about six to a thousand different things. I’ve very rarely walked out of a theater wishing I had any amount of money back in my hands.


Fran Hoepfner is a Contributing Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is a writer and comedian based out of the Chicagoland area.


Three Times I Lusted After Donny Kerabatsos

by Emma Stefansky

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

I’ve had a lot of film crushes in my day. I suspect most people have. My first love as a youngster was Han Solo (Han Solo, not Harrison Ford—I wasn’t old enough yet to separate the character from the actor and was convinced he really existed). This was followed by the likes of Kevin Kline’s smarmy diamond thief from A Fish Called Wanda; Ryan Reynolds, who I first saw as an FBI agent in Smokin’ Aces; Chris Pine in the Princess Diaries sequel; Tilda Swinton in every role she’s ever played. I could go on. These choices should come as no surprise to anyone. Most fit into the wholesomely attractive brand, on whose blank-slate looks a person can project her daydreams of bookstore meet-cutes and romantic trips to Whole Foods. And also, Tilda.

1) What Condition My Condition Is In

The first time I saw The Big Lebowski was in college with a group of my friends; we figured we weren’t real college students unless we’d seen it. I was having a good time and then, about twenty minutes in, I sat forward. Donny (Steve Buscemi) first appeared onscreen—after getting that graceful opening strike—and something stirred inside me. I was startled by the feeling—I’d never felt anything like that before. I gazed into those big, soulful eyes and I wondered.

The Big Lebowski loves the average—and even below-average—human being. The first sequence at the bowling alley plays like a synchronized swimming routine, a ballet made up of rows of untidy, out-of-shape-looking people. Instead of chiseled jaws, we have doughy cheeks and paunchy stomachs. And the camera adores them: they’re beautiful.

Walter (John Goodman) has clearly been damaged by war—his outbursts are played as part of the film’s weird humor but underneath there’s knife-sharp truth. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is a complete mess, unwilling—and probably unable—to go anywhere with his life, but somehow pretty okay with that. And Donny? Donny is a bit of an enigma. He mostly listens, but everything he hears has to ruminate in his brain before he can come to a proto-understanding of it. By then the conversation around him has already moved on.

Donny is by no means The Big Lebowski’s most important character. It’s the Dude’s movie, whether he wants it to be or not, but Donny’s purpose is to give the film its heart. You like Donny; you know he’s probably a mess but you don’t want him to die and when he does, he’s missed. This is a film about empathy for the human soul. A soul that is unkempt, perhaps even slovenly, but no less deserving of compassion.

2) I Got It Bad

The second time I saw it was about a year after that with a different group of friends. Donny spoke one line in that bewitchingly nasal voice and I felt the same stirring as before. Halfway through the movie, I realized what it was.

This was love.

When you sit down to watch a Coen Brothers movie, there is a part of your brain that’s aware that you’re not going to see exactly what you expect. Who would have foreseen a retelling of The Odyssey, set in the 1930s Deep South and speckled with folk songs; or the tale of a murderous hitman, operating out of a cozy Midwest town? H.I. McDunnough is a complete disaster of a person, but you still want him to have the chance to be a father. Llewyn Davis can’t seem to make the right decisions, steamrolling every opportunity he’s handed, but despite everything the viewer can’t help but have pity for the guy. The Coens play around with conceptions and misconceptions, altering deceptive perceptions and creating strange situations where the viewer can’t help but feel empathy for unexpected characters. I never expected to fall deeply in love with a character played by Steve Buscemi, but here we are.

Why do Walter and the Dude keep Donny around? Because he completes them.

3) His Eyes are a Blue Million Miles

The third time I saw The Big Lebowski was just this last summer, alone, on my laptop, and I recognized that what I feel for Donny is not just love, it’s adoration. I want more than anything to protect this small, wiry, bug-eyed man, and that’s a powerful emotional response to get for a character who has maybe fifteen short lines to himself (most of those repetitions of other lines belonging to other characters).

Donny exemplifies that almost impossible to describe vibe that the Coen Brothers have in most, if not all, of their films: a quiet melancholy, not underneath but entwined with the humor, that sneaks up on you when you least expect it. You laugh at all of Walter’s shut-the-fuck-up-Donny’s, but within that laugh there’s a pang of something deeper. When the Coens are at their best, what they create is not tragedy, not comedy, but something right there in the middle.

Donny hardly exists outside of the bowling alley and the parking lot where he eventually meets his end. He lives and dies in that space, doing what he loves. His pleasures are simple: he likes bowling and In-N-Out. He’s just this guy who tries really hard but never seems to get anywhere, and in this way he ends up becoming the soul of the film: another one of those quintessential Coen characters who seems disposable but whom the story would never be able to do without. He is inept yet dogged, spacey yet caring, shy yet unable to resist speaking his moral view, and when he dies you feel the loss alongside Walter and the Dude.

Theodore Donny Kerabatsos is love, personified.


Emma Stefansky hails from southeast Virginia where she writes opinions about movies for her local indie theater. Her favorite topics are sci-fi and insects and she can be found on Twitter holding forth extensively on both.


Hunt Your Dreams To The Ends Of The Earth: Life Advice From Anton Chigurh

Hallie Bateman & Nick Bateman

illustration by Jack Sjogren

illustration by Jack Sjogren

Hello,

My name is Anton Chigurh, but that is not important. If you are still alive after our first meeting, you will recognize me for the remorseless—yet highly effective—methodology used in my many executions-for-hire. However, I wasn’t always the polished, seasoned professional hitman that I am today. I went from going home miserable after the 9-5 grind to spending my days modifying captive bolt pistols, escaping from handcuffs and going home happy, gosh darnit! Now I set my own hours! I truly believe that when you put your mind to something and dedicate your whole self to it, anything is possible.

The difference between try and triumph is a little umph. ‐ Unknown

Being able to do what you love is great, but you will never be great at it without putting in serious work. There have been a million times when I have felt under qualified and overwhelmed, but I stuck to my guns (usually a TEC‐9 and a Remington 11‐87 with a suppressor) and got the job done. Some might read this as sacrifice. But if you consider it sacrifice to get stabbed in the shoulder while attempting to strangle a man then I don’t know what sacrifice is. I have never left a job feeling like I hadn’t gotten more than I put in.

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. – Wayne Gretzky

If you get a good shot on someone, take it. And speaking metaphorically, if you see an opportunity to pursue your dreams, take it. I thought about quitting my accounting job for years before I finally took the plunge. I was terrified of losing the money, security, and comfort of an office job. But the only thing I lost was weight. Seriously, I had no idea how out out of shape I was until I had to track down my first hit. He ran for 3 miles in the desert before I could tackle him and blow his brains out. Now I’m in the best shape of my life!

You cannot climb the ladder of success dressed in the costume of failure. ‐ Zig Ziglar

The first week after I quit my office job to become a hired killer, I tucked a pistol in my creased khakis, and looked in the mirror. I looked like someone you would hire to do your taxes, not someone you’d hire to shoot up a gang hideout. I needed to dress for the job I wanted. I cruised some fashion blogs, enlisted some help from my female friends, and in a few weeks, I had transformed into the 1970’s page‐boy frankenstein you see before you today.

The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it. ‐ Sydney Harris

When you’re struggling to solve a problem in your work, just take a 15 minute walk, and you’ll often find the solution staring you in the face. For example, one time I became obsessed with tracking a man I’d been hired to kill. I just couldn’t find him anywhere! Finally I got so frustrated I just took a walk—and in a few blocks, who do you think I ran into? My guy. I was overwhelmed with the serendipity of the situation as I shot him right in the face. Call me superstitious, but now I take a walk every time I get hung up on an assignment.

There are two sides to every coin. ‐ Unknown

I get a lot of questions about my signature coin flip. It all started when I killed a gambler. With a spark of inspiration, I told him to roll the dice for it. It made the whole experience so interesting for both of us. I knew I was onto something, but the schtick needed to be refined. Dice offered too many options. Cat’s cradle was impossible while holding a gun. And have you ever tried to kill someone after playing a game of Candyland? Too much of a bond develops. Finally, after months of trial and error, I discovered the beautiful simplicity of the coin flip I’m known for today.

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. –Albert Einstein

Being a contract killer doesn’t just take a total lack of conscience, you have to be good with numbers, too. Boy did my accounting experience come in handy when that first tax season came around! I didn’t just make a million dollars out of thin air, and I couldn’t just say I killed eight people for it. I had to get creative. I remembered my side hobby of melting bullets into bracelets, so I opened an Etsy store for my handmade jewelry (www.etsy.com/armsbracelets) and registered myself as an LLC. Problem solved. The funny part is, I actually have sold some jewelry! Really popular with army wives.

Sometimes life is going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. ‐ Steve Jobs

Mistake after mistake, that’s the only way you learn! I always tell the story of one of my first gigs. I was at my family’s house for Thanksgiving when I got the call to kill a dirty cop the next town over. I made an excuse to my relatives and slipped out the door. Thirty minutes later I was standing in his doorway with my aunt’s oxygen tank instead of my trusty captive bolt pistol.There was no time to go back, so I improvised: I just beat him to death with the tank. It was an embarrassing setback, and my aunt ended up going to the hospital due to the mix up, but I knew one thing for sure: I’d never make that mistake again.

Thanks for listening today. So many great people’s words have changed my life, and perhaps now mine will change yours:

Pursue your passions like you do your victims: relentlessly. ‐ Anton Chigurh


Hallie Bateman and Nick Bateman are a sibling writing team based in California.


Drink and a Movie: Inside Llewyn Davis

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

The Force Awakens is a fine film in its own right, but its greatest achievement was to rocket Oscar Isaac straight into the Internet’s heart, from whence it quickly turned to Inside Llewyn Davis for more.

That’s lucky for those of us who’ve loved the film since its 2013 release, and had grown accustomed to the task of defending it—a task which put us (at least in our own estimation) in odd harmony with its guitar-strumming hero. Llewyn (played by Isaac) is a talented folk singer on the road to nowhere—sometimes literally—mostly because he’s just not a very nice guy. He's not willing, or perhaps temperamentally able, to play the celebrity game that increasingly went along with making it in the American folk music revival scene.

When we meet him at the Gaslight, he’s perched on a stool singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Soon he’s getting beat up in a back alley. The reason is both unclear and beside the point: as we quickly find out, any number of people seem to have good reason to take a swing at Llewyn. Like Jean (Carey Mulligan), whom he’s accidentally impregnated. Or her still-oblivious nice-guy husband Jim (Justin Timberlake), whose songwriting Llewyn can’t help but insult.

Llewyn has some idea of his craft that makes him pathologically afraid of merely existing, of becoming his father—”Exist?” his sister spits at him angrily. “That’s what we do outside of show business? It’s not so bad, existing.” But Jean also accuses him of bringing this all on himself, of not wanting to go anywhere—"and that’s why the same shit’s going to keep happening to you, because you want it to.” (“And also because you’re an asshole,” she adds.)

A true misanthrope, Llewyn stands in his own way. You can read the film as one big flashback, but I think it’s some combination of his misanthropy and plain bad timing that keeps him on a Sisyphean cycle. The film begins and ends with Llewyn at the Gaslight and subsequent alley pummeling, but by the end he’s getting shoved off the stage completely by a familiar-sounding newcomer singing “Farewell.”

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus had a nasty little habit of tricking the gods. They doomed him for all eternity to roll a stone up the hill, only to have it roll away from him. He had it coming, is the implication. Don’t anger the gods, whether they’re deities or just folk revival fans.

Thank goodness Oscar Isaac—who seems like a really nice guy, with talent in spades—has not been subsumed by Llewyn’s Sisyphean cycle. His success in everything from Show Me a Hero and A Most Violent Year to, yes, The Force Awakens makes it clear he’s on a different path than the doomed Greek rock-roller.

Those of us plaintively Tweeting “hey, I loved Oscar Isaac long before he hung out with droids” feel that hill, though, with the rock at the bottom. It’s par for the course in the critical life: every year is shoving a rock up the hill toward awards season, trying in vain to suggest that the “Oscar race” is not all that matters, slogging through the paint-by-numbers summer offerings, running the gauntlet of fall releases, championing and arguing, trying to ignore the comments section—only to feel the rock drop off a cliff right around early January and having to start all over again.

But I’m being silly. Why do we do it? Because we love it. (Certainly not for the money). We do it because it is how we feel like we’re not merely existing. On our good days, we are Camus’s version of Sisyphus, marching back down the hill toward the rock to start the climb again and choosing to be happy anyway.

On our bad days, it’s a little more dire. “I’m tired,” Llewyn says near the end of the film. “I thought I just needed a night’s sleep, but it’s more than that.”

There is only one possible appropriate drink to accompany a much-deserved, early-year rewatch of Inside Llewyn Davis, especially if existing feels rough and you need something a bit stronger than a good night’s sleep. I should think you could have ordered it at the Gaslight and perched on an uncomfortable chair, joints loosened by decades of folk fans shifting their weight from side to side. You could have listened to a quintet of earnest young men in fishing sweaters sing “The Old Triangle” or a nice likeable couple sing about a train going by or, if you’re lucky, catch a newbie with an unusual voice. You might just hear one of the regulars, a young man with a tired expression and a voice like velvet gold.

The drink involves whiskey, of course. Could it be any other way?

But in keeping with Llewyn’s nature, it’s a whiskey sour. The classic version of this is three parts whiskey (often bourbon, to cut the tartness), two parts lemon juice, one part simple syrup. Shake it all up and pour it over ice. However, if you really want to pay homage to Llewyn’s fate, go light on the syrup, and don’t pour it over ice: get those fancy little whiskey rocks they sell in gift catalogs, which won’t dilute either the whiskey’s bite or the lemon’s acid.

Before you pour it into the tumblr, reserve just a tad. Put it in a shot glass. Sneak outside and pour it onto the cold, hard concrete. Think of poor Llewyn, watching the world pass him by, and when you’re warm and watching his story, raise your glass to him, and to the little bit of Llewyn in all of us.


Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. Her writing appears in The Washington PostThe Atlantic,The Los Angeles Review of Books,Pacific StandardMovie Mezzanine,Books & Culture, and other venues. Her book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, co-written with Robert Joustra, is due out from Eerdmans in the spring.


Mattie Ross

(True Grit, 2010)

black-plaited girl severe as the winter plains
a close trader
a bookkeeper
wears her father’s flat black hat
for he is dead
& she shall not smile
perhaps never did before neither
this is not such a time nor place for smiling
not a land for contractions
or quitters or mothers
or other fancies

she will see the body now please
see herself yanked from that fine pony
& spanked & switched by a ranger
see herself flung into the cold river
by the kickback of her rifle
see all those bullets
making their slow determined exits
see her arm lost to the snake
of the black hole of vengeance
see the marshal’s body reburied
atop her own plain hill

she will never marry
wifeliness would be undignified
after all that resolute time on the trail
newsprint in the crown stiff against her skull


Arielle Greenberg is the Resident Poet at Bright Wall/Dark Room. She is the co-author of Home/Birth: A Poemic; author of My Kafka Century and Given; and co-editor of three anthologies, including Gurlesque. She lives in Maine and teaches in the community and in Oregon State University-Cascades' MFA; she is currently teaching a course in American cinema to insightful students at the Maine State Prison enrolled through the University of College at Rockland (hi, guys!). Arielle writes a regular column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review.