By Victoria Priest April 25, 2022 (c) [small changes made on April 29, 2022]
The year is 1998. The Big Lebowski hits theaters, but, I miss it. My son, an infant that I was busy taking care of at the time, in recent times told me I needed to see it as it’s one of his favorite movies. So watching it, I was half-way enjoying it and not knowing what to think of it, really, until the very end when I literally reacted with: “. . . what?!” Why, you ask? Because the movie isn’t just a comedy, but some kind of philosophical religious commentary. I immediately realized that watching the movie once, especially without subtitles on, was only the beginning of the Lebowski experience. I didn’t watch it again right away, but ordered the screenplay and read that. What follows are my own observations and commentary after doing some (but not too much) research and giving it some thought. And I shouldn’t have to say this, but there are spoilers ahead.
A note on a result of waiting so long to comment on an older popular movie: I’m quite aware that the movie has been studied a lot, commented on a lot, and that those studies and commentaries often relate to the background of the Coen Brothers, who wrote and directed the movie. By their name you can guess they’re Jewish, and they are—Coen is Hebrew for priest. They were raised Jewish in America. They have made a number of movies that deal with religion is some way or another, with one in particular—A Serious Man (2016)—being very critical of modern Jewish faith (from what I’ve read). While I have read some reviews and analyses of The Big Lebowski, I’m presenting my own take on the movie here. I plan on delving into the Coen Brothers more and their “religious” films, and will hopefully write the results of that here at a later time.
The story starts out by confusing us about when exactly it takes place, in 1990 or 1991? And this seems to be important since the narrator tells us it is: the main character, the Dude, is a man for his time and place, the narrator tells us. In a grocery store, George H. W. Bush is on the news concerning the Gulf War, and the broadcast is from 1990. But the Dude’s check he writes for buying milk is dated September 11, 1991. Eerie, isn’t it? Gulf War and an arguably later effect, the 9/11 attack of 2001, coincidentally predicted in a movie from 1998.i Despite the movie starting out this way, it doesn’t seem to follow through. There are tiny glimpses relating to The Gulf conflict, but that’s it, with nothing tying it to the end. Interesting, but let’s move on.
As I mentioned, the main character is the Dude. In the script it’s not “The Dude,” but just “the Dude,” and his given name is Jeffrey Lebowski. He’s an avid bowler who is laid-back, humble, and not greedy. He probably smokes too much weed and drinks too many White Russians. As the narrator mentions in the middle of the movie, he could cuss less, though. The movie DOES have a lot of swearing, and according to one trivia entry at IMDBii, the “f” word is used almost 300 times. The Dude also uses the neutral word “man” a lot, saying it (according to the same source) 147 times. During most of the film he dresses in a very relaxed fashion. At the very end, however, he doesn’t cuss and is dressed more neatly. He is not the Big Lebowski, as that refers to another character of the same name, though unrelated. The Big Lebowski also has a daughter, Maude, a cosmopolitan and eccentric artist, who is a central character. She provides needed information to the Dude, although she’s not always accurate.
The movie takes place in various parts of greater Los Angeles, but within two defined spheres (in my view): in a certain bowling alley or outside of it. The Dude’s bowling buddy, Walter Sobcheck, is also a main character. He is a fractious Vietnam Vet and a convert to Judaism via his ex-wife; his dialogue is full references to these two things. He not only carries his bowling bag everywhere, but also a dog carrier holding the dog of his ex-wife. He says the dog is a Pomeranian show dog, but it is actually a scraggly little (Yorkshire) terrier. The script says the dog is a Pomeranian, but I wonder if they changed it to represent Walter’s view of his wife versus reality. You see, he’s dog-sitting while his ex-wife is with another man in Hawaii. Walter appears to be a weak cuckold on the one hand, but a strong-talking security business owner on the other. When I wrote earlier that I was “half-way” enjoying the movie, it was Walter’s annoying and stress-inducing character that was the cause of my partial disenjoyment.
Other (non-minor) characters: (1) Donny (about my favorite character) is an innocent man on the same bowling team with the Dude and Walter, and he suffers verbal abuse from Walter throughout the film. He is the only character to die in the film. (2) Bunny, the young trophy wife of the Big Lebowski. She dabbles in porn and is virtually absent from the film, but is central to the plot. (3) The German nihilists, who are three men (and a girlfriend). They had a band and dabble in porn. (4) Jackie Treehorn, who makes the porn the others dabble in, and his thugs. And lastly (5), Jesus Quintana, who bowls on a competing team and who is a “pederast” (pedophile). He is the opposite of Donny, and a “false Christ” figure. I say the “opposite of Donny” because of Donny’s innocence. For example, in one scene Donny asks the Dude what he needs his dick for (!), which is in high contrast to what the false Jesus uses his dick for.
The plot is a crime mystery, based on the supposed kidnapping of Bunny Lebowski. It starts with both the Dude and his rug (“that ties the room together”) being assaulted in his quaint bungalow court apartment by thugs who are after Bunny Lebowski’s husband’s money. She owes their boss money, and they mistake (in humorously stupid fashion) Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski for the wealthy man of the same name. At this time Bunny is not yet kidnapped.iii
A short time later, when she “is” kidnapped, the Dude is conscripted by the Big Lebowski to be an intermediary with the kidnappers. What follows is the Dude trying to help, while also realizing that things are probably not what they seem. He figures things wrong, though, because of his limited information. As the story progresses, he learns more, of course, but he doesn’t discover the whole truth until the end. Suffice to say, once Bunny disappears, most of the characters in the film try to find a way to keep the million dollar ransom for themselves. These are the nihilists, the Big Lebowski, Jackie Treehorn, and even Walter. The Big Lebowski tries to keep the money since, as we find out, he’s a fake and not rich (but he is given a rich lifestyle, and thus shows his ingratitude). The Dude doesn’t try to steal the money, being content instead to receive the offered fee for his services (although he says that he really just wanted to get his rug back). Maude Lebowski tries to get the money too, but only because it came from the family’s foundation and she wants to put it back.
The Surprise Ending
So what was it that surprised me so at the end of the movie? In the closing scene, after Donny’s ashes have been dispersed, we find ourselves in the (nearly empty) bowling alley. The narrator, an old-fashioned cowboy, is sitting at the bar. The Dude comes up to get drinks for himself and Walter, and a very short conversation between the two follows. After the Dude walks away, he stops and says “ . . . the Dude abides.” That surprised me because it so odd to hear those words outside of a Christian setting. There are quite a few verses in the New Testament about “abiding in Christ,” and there are more that mean the same but don’t specifically use that word. When you abide in Christ He abides in you, and Christians are admonished to abide in Christ (John 14:17, 15:4-10; 1 John 2:6, 24, 27, 3:24, 4:13).
What the narrator says next, in his conclusion to the story, is even more surprising. And that is that he takes comfort in the Dude abiding, knowing that he (the Dude) is taking it easy for all us sinners. Who talks like that today, except in church and referring to Christ?? No one otherwise can do anything for . . . all . . . sinners. This is why I had to rewatch the movie and read the script. And it’s why a great many people see the Dude as a Jesus figure. But if the Dude is some sort of reflection of Jesus, who are the other characters and what is going on?
I want to interject right here that I believe God works in the world to draw people to Himself and to get his plans accomplished (Philippians 2:13). To do this, God works through people, and I don’t think He necessarily only works through either aware or willing people. In the case of the Coen brothers, I don’t know what was on their minds and hearts when they made this movie, and I don’t think anyone does. But it’s apparent from their movies (and even some things they’ve said) that they are into expressing their ideas about religion and faith. So if they are willing to explore and express these subjects, I’m sure God can and has used them. What I mean by this is that there could be religious significance to things that they didn’t consciously intend. It’s worth exploring, in my view, since discovering God’s work in our world, seeing that He is active all around us, is very encouraging if not delightful.
The Bowling Alley and the People In It
Donny and “Jesus.” As I mentioned earlier, in my view the movie takes place in two spheres: inside and outside a bowling alley. Or perhaps it is better to say that the movie is defined by those two spheres. The bowling alley is the story’s spiritual realm, the outside is not. The Dude is there, as is his high-strung Jewish friend Walter and his mild and calm friend Donny. Donny is generally quiet but asks questions and interjects little things, but is always shot down by Walter, who is constantly telling him that he’s “out of his element” and to shut up. To me, Donny, who’s bowling shirts always have different people’s names on them, is an angelic figure instead of a real person. His bowling ball is glittery gold.
His full name is given at his “funeral”: Theodore Donald Karabotsos. As far as I can decipher his names mean “gift of god,” “world ruler or holder,” “pure/head,” and “boots.” Which could mean that he was a gift from God, being pure from head to toe (he drank soda instead of alcohol, too). I’m not sure about the world portion, except maybe he held the world of the bowling alley together for a time, that he was a voice of God there. In the first half of the movie there’s a scene where Donny mixes words up that I’m assuming would be humorous to a Jewish audience. Walter is talking about “shomer shabbas,” or in English, someone who observes the sabbath. Donny asks Walter how he gets around if he can’t ride in a car on “Shammas.” Shammas means servant or attendant, and is also the name of the candle used to light the others in the menorah. Besides the possible humorous effect of this dialogue, many Christians believe the lighting candle of the menorah (whether of 7 or 9 candles) represents Christ.iv
Donny’s foil is Jesus Quintana, the pederast. He suggestively licks his pinkish-purple bowling ball and has one long red fingernail; the imagery evoked “Satan” in my thoughts. He and his bowling partner are shown vigorously polishing their balls together.
This faux Jesus is also quite threatening. The Eagles’ song Hotel California (though a Latin cover) plays in the background with Quintana, and as analyzed by some, the song does seem to touch on Satanism.v So Quintana is a Satan figure and his name shows that he’s a mockery of Jesus Christ. Remember in the Book of Job, where Satan (an angel) is in the heavenly realm along with the other angels in the presence of God (Job 1:6). Here, too, he is in a spiritual realm. To show their connection, even if it is an opposing connection, Quintana air kisses at Donny (which confuses him).
Near the end of the movie, the nihilists—who believe in nothing—meet Walter, the Dude, and Donny in the bowling alley parking lot, where a fight ensues. The nihilists keep saying here that, since they believe in nothing, they can’t be hurt. In response, Walter interestingly calls them anti-semites. To believe in nothing, to ignore God’s creation, is an affront to God, and to Walter, anyway, an affront to God’s people. And it certainly won’t prevent you from getting hurt (either physically or spiritually), and Walter proves this by biting the ear off of one. Both the Dude and Donny reacted by trying to avoid fighting. At the end of the fight Donny has a heart attack, and the bowling alley wall fades to black while all the neon stars on the wall show brightly. Donny is going back to his element.
The Jew. I’ve already described the basics of Walter, but there’s more to know. He’s very controlling. He’s religiously legalistic while hypocritically using God’s name in vain (even in the same breath while defending his faith!), he lies and displays a greedy nature. He’s a very unflattering example of a Jewish convert. As a movie viewer I wouldn’t necessarily take this as a judgment against Judaism, since Walter is an individual. But, it does seem to be an indictment of Judaism when comparing him to the calm and unassuming Dude. Walter makes some interesting observations, though. Like how nihilists are anti-semitic. When he first considers the nihilists he says (from the script): “Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism [the Nazi Party], Dude, at least it has an ethos.”vi (The Dude agrees.) So in Walter’s view (and the Dude’s), it is better to be a Nazi than to be someone who believes in nothing. It’s OK to take some time to let that sink in. Walter can also be seen reading a bible while waiting in the mortuary. His bowling ball is red, white, and blue.
The Son of Man and the Church. In the movie Maude, the Big Lebowski’s grown daughter, ends up sleeping with the Dude. This is not very Christ-like of the Dude, so I really wondered about this. I wondered how Maude fit into any type of spiritual or religious analogy. Maude wanted the Dude to have sex with her so that she could get pregnant, since she wanted to have a child but with someone who didn’t want to be involved with the child. The only thing I could think of is that Maude may represent the church, which is the bride of Christ. It would fit if the Coens meant to criticize cheap faith or spirituality on the Christian side, too. The church needs members, and here the church (as Maude) is creating new members who need it, but who won’t need Christ himself. Can you think of any churches like that? As for her not seeming to be a part of the spiritual realm (the bowling alley), she actually does appear in the alley, in the dream sequences.vii She uses a dark metallic bowling ball. Maude could mean nothing, really, but the fact that the narrator tells us a Little Lebowski is on the way seems to indicate some meaning.
The Dude himself perhaps could be thought of as a type of The Son of Man, as Christ referred to Himself,viii since the Dude is living amongst us sinners; as stated before, he also says “man” almost 150 times in the movie. There is a potential problem with this that needs to be considered, though. The Dude’s rug, a plot device, is a part of this problem. The problem is that in one quick scene the Dude follows the enclosed pattern of the Persian-type rug, then does a Shivet Nataraja pose on the rug. Shivet is the Hindu god of the dance, the dance of creation and destruction. In that one sense (only, since Hindu gods have multiple associations), Shivet could be viewed as the same as the Judeo-Christian creator God. But I doubt if that’s what the movie is trying to say (however, who knows for sure), and probably no one would be happy with that equation. I’ll share a far-out idea. While the rug is central, it disappears. At first, the rug is the Dude’s. After it gets urinated on by one of the thugs at the beginning of the movie, it apparently gets tossed in the trash.
The Dude’s second rug is from the Big Lebowski mansion, but as it turns out to be Maude’s special one that her mother had given her, Maude takes it back (she can be seen flying above the City of Angels on her rug in a dream sequence). After this, the Dude never gets another rug. The Dude is portrayed as a hippie living in a post-hippie world. His rug was probably from that past time, and the same could be said about Maude’s rug (the one he poses on). As noted earlier, by the end of the film the Dude is subtly changed. Perhaps he let go of, or became less enamored with, the Eastern religion that influenced the culture so much beginning with the hippie era. The rug could represent this.
The Dude’s bowling ball is black with white around the holes, except in the second dream sequence when it’s a mix of red and black.
Near the end of the movie the Dude can be seen inexplicably applying clear nail polish to his nails, but particularly to his thumb. He appears to apply a thumbnail over his own. What this means, I do not know. The faux Jesus uses red polish, Bunnie uses sparkly green polish, and the Dude uses clear polish.
The Narrator (“The Stranger”). The narrator seems to be a cowboy from the past, as he drinks sarsaparilla and that was what cowboys used to do (it was popular in the 19th century). I’m going to claim that he represents a transcendent being. He knew of the Dude before arriving in California, he knew how much he cursed without ever being around him, and he knew that Maude conceived. We hear him at the beginning of the film and see him twice—in the middle of the film and at the end. That’s it. In the middle of the film he seems to appear out of nowhere, at least that’s the impression I got with the way the scene was filmed.
The People Outside the Bowling Alley
The Big Lebowski (and Bunny). The Big Lebowski (BL) is basically the opposite of the Dude. Two Jeffrey Lebowskis that are foils to each other. Following the analogies postulated so far, one would maybe assume that the BL represents God. I don’t think so, but maybe to the Coens he does in some sense. The BL is a majorly hypocritical fraud, and it’s possible that at least one of the Coen brothers thinks that a lot of peoples’ views of God are incorrect—that their views are a fraud. I’ll be researching this more for a future essay on the Coens. It can be assumed that the BL is simply an example of the stereotypical wealthy person, as he says you must work work work to pull yourself up, to be successful like he is. Though in actuality he’s not good at business, he doesn’t work, and the opulence he lives in is from his deceased wife.
There is a scene that makes me believe the Coens are portraying the BL as something more sinister, however—that he’s a spiritual fraud. This is when he is in his limo, berating the Dude after forcing him into the vehicle. After the BL uses God’s name in vain a couple of times, he then uses “in God’s holy name.” He then invokes biblical language when threatening the Dude: “Any further harm visited upon Bunny shall be visited tenfold upon your head . . . . By God, sir. I shall not abide another toe.”ix This language relates to Cain and his descendant Lamech, in the Old Testament. Cain murdered his brother Abel, but God gave the exiled Cain some protection by saying that anyone who killed Cain would be avenged sevenfold. Later, Lamech boasted that even though he killed two people, if anyone came after him he would be avenged seventy and sevenfold (Genesis 4:15, 24). That the BL used tenfold instead of sevenfold may mean nothing, or it could represent a mix-up of meanings, relating to the 10 times reward in the Parable of the Ten Minas (Luke 19:11-27). He also uses the word “abide” differently than the Dude does. This would hint at the BL’s false faith.
Bunny is a girl much younger than the BL, a girl who ran away from the family farm. He marries her and they use each other. One of the nihilists, a friend of Bunny’s, is found at the Lebowski mansion before we know what their role in the film is. When Bunny is driving back home in one scene, she is singing the devil lines from the Elvis Presley song Viva Las Vegas. The BL pretends to be good, hiding the rot inside, but Bunny is just herself.
Jackie Treehorn (and Bunny). As already stated, Jackie Treehorn makes porn. Bunny and the nihilists have been in at least one of his movies, and Bunny sleeps with him. He’s a greedy guy. The one time we meet him, there’s a beach party going on at his property. It’s like what you might think from people involved in porn. According to a quote found at the IMDB trivia page, the party was Inca-themed and was supposed to have a “very sacrificial quality.” Taken all together, along with showing that local law enforcement was in the pocket of Treehorn, the adult entertainment industry is not shown in a favorable light. Bunny’s name is evocative of the Playboy enterprise. Treehorn’s house is decorated in the 1950s-1960s style, which was the retro style used in the movie generally. This corresponds to the time that Hugh Hefner was developing his whole Playboy brand, and Hefner was known for throwing frequent high-profile bashes with a fleet of “bunnies.”
The Nihilists (and Bunny). What can one say about the nihilists that hasn’t already been stated? Of course they play humorous roles in the film and dress in tight black leather, but in regards to what they represent, it’s pretty simple. They represent people who believe in nothing. What they do in the film is not as important as their lack of faith in anything.
Tying it All Together (No Rug Needed)
You may be wondering how the film can be tied all together without describing more of the plot and action. But from what I see, the plot and action are the vehicles upon which the philosophical and/or religious ideas find expression; the comedy was for commercial success, the meaning was to satisfy the Coens. What the characters believe, do quietly, and discuss are the important things, not Walter’s absurd threat of violence with a pistol in the bowling alley, nor the nihilists’ invasion of the Dude’s home with a marmot (ferret in actuality) to threaten the bathing Dude’s johnson with. And even though Jesus Quintana had no role in any action outside of his brief appearances in the bowling alley, the details of his character are memorable and therefore significant.
What ties the story together is the idea of believing in something, or faith. If you don’t have faith, you’re worse than a Nazi. This significant point is easy to miss in the movie, but significant it is. If you have faith you’re better than a Nazi, even if you’re still a major work in progress, like Walter.
Regarding the Dude being a Christ figure, well, I think it’s only to let the audience know that Christian principles are something to think about. Anyone who abides in Christ is going to have Christ in them, and so Christ is amongst sinners anywhere a true Christian is found. A single person filled with Christ isn’t going to do something for all sinners, but the more of such faithful there are, the more sinners will be touched. Any of us who are professing Christ should be a blessing to those around us. In the case of the Dude, he tried to do what was right, and he was “long-suffering” when it came to his friend Walter. Abiding in Christ helps believers get through difficult times themselves, too, as seemed to be the Dude’s meaning when he uttered the word.
How much the Coen’s would agree with this, I don’t know, but something has to be considered in regard to that unexpected closing monologue. And what of the opening scene, which brings up the Gulf War? It is neither mentioned nor hinted at at the end. However, I find it mighty interesting that September 11th was chosen for the Dude’s check, so I’m glad that the scene was left as-is. (*)
i The movie was ready to be released at the end of 1997, but due to Christmas-time competition it was released in 1998.
iii Why Bunny would owe that guy money is anyone’s guess. She works for the guy, Jackie Treehorn, making porn, so he would be paying her. She also gets an allowance from her husband.
iv The Coens add another play on the word later in the film by confusing the words Shamus/Seamus, meaning private eye and monk, respectively. This is right after Walter says he’s following erev shabbas, or sabbath eve, and the Dude discovers that a private eye is tailing him.
v A ton of articles can be found on the internet about the meaning of the song Hotel California, or rather what it doesn’t mean, since their main purpose is to condemn any kind of Christian analysis. Personally, I never thought the song was trying to portray any of the negative things in it as positive; I don’t see how anyone would think that The Eagles were promoting Satanism with that song. But since some Christians claimed that the song was pro-Satan, online writers (and Don Henley himself) seem to put down all Christians (it’s funny how the Dude says he “hates the Eagles” in a cab scene, which gets him thrown out of the cab). This article is not about analyzing a song that is used in a context that many people would understand.
vi Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, The Big Lebowski [movie script] (London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1998), 76. This reminds me of what Jesus said to the Church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:15-16: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot or cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth.” It seems that Jesus can work with those who have a belief in spirituality, even if they’re cold toward God, but if you’re indifferent or don’t have a spirituality, then there’s nothing to work with.
vii In the first dream, she is the one to roll a bowling ball, which is giant and overpowers the Dude. In the second dream, which is very sexual, he is the one to gently guide her in bowling a ball.
ix Coen & Coen, The Big Lebowski, 67-68.
(*) Some reviewers told me that they didn’t understand why I ended this piece the way I did. So to be blunt, it refers back to where I say that God uses people unwittingly. Unless the Coens had a vision of September 11, 2001, I’m guessing that they chose the month and day for that check for no particular reason, or for some reason that no one seems to get. But maybe God put it in there to let us know that He is in fact around and active. Maybe.
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