There are few films that genuinely get better with each successive viewing. The Big Lebowski is one of them. This is owed not only to its near-infinite quotability, which itself grows with time, given how much of the film’s humor is self-referential, but also because its tangled plot requires a substantial amount of unraveling before it can be fully understood and appreciated. The Coen brothers use the noir framework of such films as The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye as a starting point and apply it to a wonderfully trivial case sparked by a micturated-upon rug which, we’re reminded ad infinitum, “really tied the room together.” From there the Coens lead us on a tour involving White Russians, bowling, nihilists (read: not Nazis), a faux-kidnapping set up to mask an embezzlement scheme, and more White Russians. The plentiful in-jokes are sometimes so esoteric, in fact, that we’re often the only ones in on them: The Dude (Jeff Bridges), our semi-straight man in an increasingly labyrinthine story, is often out of his element. In order to mask this, he parrots serious-sounding phrases he hears in various places, from George H.W. Bush decrying Saddam Hussein on television to an abstract artist he’s just met. Dialogue is as fluid as it is flexible here; wordsmiths always, the Coens pack their script with adaptive turns of phrase whose meaning evolves slowly throughout.
To properly discuss the film in any amount of depth hinges on a closer look at the Dude himself, a character whose endearing and abundant eccentricities are wont to mask his inner calm. He’s slovenly and unemployed with no plans of changing this state of affairs, but he’s also so Zen in so distinct a way that he’s become one of the most revered, even cult-like figures in all of cinema. The Dude isn’t merely a slacker; he’s the figurehead—and legitimization—of an entire way of life. To say that he suffers from a lack of ambition would be wrong in that, firstly, it implies that he’s suffering and, secondly, where some see lethargy, more still find an almost ascetic contentment. Give the Dude a White Russian (a libation whose recent popularity is owed almost entirely to his endorsement), some tunes, and maybe a round of bowling, because that’s all he needs to be happy. He finds calm in the most chaotic of situations, a levelheadedness that’s tested time and again by the increasingly bizarre (and eventually violent) machinations of The Big Lebowski’s plot. In ultimately emerging unfazed, he shows he’s much more than the apotheosis of burnt-out hippiedom; he’s a magnetic figure with a subtle-but-strong influence on everyone around him.
Just as the Coen brothers’ grimmest films are peppered with the same dark humor at the forefront of their comedies, so too are their comedies colored by the darker shades of their dramas. In the case of The Big Lebowski, there’s no lack of underlying grimness: not only repeated allusions to Vietnam and the Nazis, but, most prominently, a recurring castration motif. This comes as the result of the Dude’s interactions with a trio of nihilists who may or may not have kidnapped the nymphomaniac trophy wife of the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski. At various points throughout the film, the nihilists drop a ferret into the Dude’s bathtub, explicitly threaten to “cut off his Johnson,” and appear in a dream sequence wielding gigantic scissors. The threat isn’t entirely from without: The Dude at one point drops a lit joint on his lap while driving his Ford Torino, and the resultant panic may be our hero at his most frazzled. Indeed, the Dude at one point answers “a pair of testicles” when asked what makes a man and later claims, perhaps only half-jokingly, that he would prefer death to castration. Clearly this is something he’s thought about a great deal, and it casts a dark cloud over much of the film.
Though the Dude is without question the center of The Big Lebowski, he’s surrounded by a number of just-as-eccentric supporting figures. And though John Goodman’s Walter is certainly the most colorful supporting character, the cast consists of the usual assortment of noted character actors found throughout the Coens’ films: Peter Stormare, John Turturro, Philip Seymour Hoffman (who has since rightfully come into his own as a leading man), David Thewlis, Jon Polito. Most notable among these is Steve Buscemi, whose characters (spoilers herein) can’t catch a break in the Coen brothers’ films: From Miller’s Crossing to Barton Fink to Fargo to this, he always dies. Here his death is immediately foreshadowed by missing a single pin in a frame of bowling; every other time we see him in the lanes, he gets a strike. It’s the sort of subtle detail that helps make The Big Lebowski—as with most of the Coens’ oeuvre—warrant not only repeat viewings, but also a reconsideration of the subtlety and skill with which they craft their black humor.
One of the most famous repeated lines (“Fuck it, Dude, let’s go bowling”) is less an admission of defeat and more a declaration that life goes on. To dwell on that which has already passed achieves nothing and, what’s more, is very un-Dude. The ultimate significance of this line, however, that it’s Walter who always says it. By far the most volatile character in the film, he’s at times quite calm, a quality perhaps owed to so often being in the Dude’s presence. Similarly, the Stranger (Sam Elliott) who narrates the film is also an avowed admirer of our hero—this, despite essentially being a cowboy with, it’s safe to imagine, very little in common with him. The Coens likely couldn’t have known how far—and with what strength—the Dude’s aura would emanate into the cinematic world, but they make it clear enough that, within the film itself, his effect has already taken hold.
I’ve watched The Big Lebowski more times than I’ll ever be able to count. This is the best it’s ever looked and sounded. The image is sharp without looking overly processed (especially important given that Roger Deakins was the DP), and the lossless audio track is particularly impressive. The Big Lebowski is a very talky film, but here its subtle sound design—panning effects, barely noticeable sounds, diegetic music—is finally given equal footing with the dialogue. The same may be said of its excellent soundtrack (I say this as someone with no particular affinity for the likes of Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, or the Eagles), which is as important to the film’s overall mood as the décor.
Enough to satiate—or even overwhelm—the film’s many cultish fans. The sole exception, for me at least, is the same "exclusive introduction" that appeared on the Collector’s Edition DVD a few years back. It’s out of place, unnecessary, and, to be honest, unfunny. This is more than made up for by the slew of other extras, most of which are aimed at the die-hards. There’s a trivia pop-up that accompanies the film in the same way a commentary track (something this Blu-ray unfortunately lacks) would and allows the viewer—or viewers, as you can play against one another—to complete lines before they’re actually spoken. It’s relatively easy if you’re among The Big Lebowski’s most obsessed fans, but nevertheless perfect for a film so conducive to audience participation. There’s also the usual assortment of retrospective pieces (one details the Dude’s Zen connection and also goes into the reasons why he, Walter, and Donny have become so beloved; another, which amounts to a sort of 10-year reunion for the film, focuses on the film’s cult status) and a making-of featurette. Most of these are a bit breezy, as the longest clocks in at just under half an hour, but more than entertaining and informative enough to justify their inclusion. But just as The Big Lebowski is made by its idiosyncrasies, so too is this Blu-ray’s supplemental package: there’s an interactive map highlighting several of the film’s locations and how they were chosen, a 13-minute excerpt from The Achievers, a documentary about Lebowski Fest, and a very short analysis of the Dude’s dream sequences. Best of all, perhaps, is a featurette on Jeff Bridges’s photos from the set (Bridges is a noted amateur photographer), presented by the actor himself. It’s always fun to hear him talk, especially because it takes very little time to notice the inherent similarities between him and his most well-known character.
The Dude abides—in 1080p.