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20 Years Later: Aggression Will Not Stand in ‘The Big Lebowski’

“The man in me will hide sometimes to keep from being seen
That’s just because he doesn’t want to turn into some machine”

All the Dude ever wanted was his rug back. The Coen Brothers’ finest achievement in comedy is a movie with low stakes, no real resolution, and one of the laziest protagonists in film: The Big Lebowski. Set during the 1991 Gulf War, The Dude is not only the most defining character Jeff Bridges ever portrayed, but the film also pushed a movement towards pacifism by contrasting him against aggressive people. The Big Lebowski embraces the ideas of individuality in the face of conflict, and sees how different external forces can cause a different outcome — even if all you really want is your rug.

The Dude is not a man of action. As The Big Lebowski (who shares the same name as The Dude — Jeffrey Lebowski) gives a lecture, The Dude’s response is a casual “Fuck it.” It’s his response to everything — except maybe in his own home, where his rug was micturated upon.  While he does tell Walter (John Goodman), his best friend, to leave him alone because he keeps making things worse, he eventually concedes that he’ll still be at the bowling match before hanging up. While he does nail a board into his own floor in order to deter future intruders, a later scene depicts his plan as basically a half-hearted attempt.

In other words, The Dude has ample opportunity to change his fate, but rarely does. Perhaps he believes fighting back will result in a change of the status quo for him, something he clearly values. His home was his safe place, and so he ends up trying to keep people out of it so that it stays that way. Unfortunately, when he finally gets back after visiting Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), he trips on his own trap and finds Maude inside. Nowhere is safe for the Dude. When he goes bowling later — his other safe haven — he, Walter, and Donny (Steve Buscemi) are confronted by the Nihilists, who they then must fight due to Walter’s actions, resulting in Donny’s death from a heart attack.

The Dude is a pacifist; he believes that violence just begets greater violence. The Nihilists believe in nothing. But then there’s Walter. Ultimately, the only reason The Dude is in this whole situation is because of Walter’s advice to hold The Big Lebowski accountable for The Dude’s rug being peed on, since the “carpet pissers” had intended to urinate on The Big Lebowski’s rug. The Dude was just going to vent, but he wasn’t actually going do anything about it until Walter pushed him to do so. Walter is aggressive (e.g., bringing an Uzi to a simple drop ff), and serves as a metaphor for the aggression by the United States in the then-current Gulf War.

A catalyst for everything that goes wrong in the movie, Walter’s aggression stems from his past time in Vietnam — another war where US intervention is considered unjustified and left many Americans who went there either killed or subject to PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Ironically, he talks about drawing a “line in the sand” that should never be crossed, but he himself always crosses that line, and it forces The Dude into a worse situation.

It’s odd that The Big Lebowski is seen as a cult classic now, but also as one of the “lighter” Coen Brothers works. Putting it next to something like Inside Llewyn Davis and No Country For Old Men, it of course will come up as “light.” The film is a by-product of being a comedy of errors, with characters who are all heightened versions of people that would be more subtly portrayed by anyone else. But its recreational use of drugs, great soundtrack, and constant yelling from Walter are not the only things that have made it a classic — The Big Lebowski is so layered that you cannot catch everything at first glance. Having seen the film multiple times, often I find myself watching it in different ways, even getting enjoyment out of just watching Donny in the background, emoting to conversations between Walter and The Dude.

Still, I would go so far as to argue that the biggest draw of The Big Lebowski has become The Dude’s mantra: “The Dude abides.” He goes with the flow, including not being able to stop Walter when he interrupts that flow. Once things are in motion, war is an unrelenting machine. Echoes of Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me” reverberate throughout all of The Dude’s interactions and the film itself, as The Dude tries to just exist under the radar (“…hide sometimes to keep from being seen”), avoid his way of life being threatened (‘Storm clouds are raging all around my door”), and keep happy by simple mean (“…as for compensation, there’s little he would ask”). The Dude maintains a pacifist mindset because it keeps his lifestyle low-key.

In times like now when we see aggression all around us, The Big Lebowski has taken on such a larger importance. Twenty years later, I don’t think anyone could imagine The Dude being as prolific as he is, but it’s because he represents simplicity and peacefulness. Sam Elliot’s The Stranger concludes the film with a perfect summation: “’The Dude abides’. Dunno about you, but I take comfort in those words. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there […] Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.”

Written By

Chris is a graduate of Communications from Simon Fraser University and resides in Victoria, British Columbia. Given a pint, he will talk for days about action films, video games, and the works of John Carpenter.

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