It was never new, and it never gets old
The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, named for an album by Dave Van Ronk, is profoundly similar to Barton Fink in that it involves an artist’s battle against the “art machine,” as it were, and shares the thought that very little public reward or monetary gain comes to artists who maintain their integrity. Of course, an artist makes art for the self, and whatever comes from the outside comes, but in a narrative, it’s nice to see our protagonists succeed in some tangible way. Don’t hold your breath for Llewyn. Like him or not – his own bullheadedness and shortsighted behavior leads to most of his problems – he’s a beautiful musician with a pure artistic soul, and he’s played by the incomparable Oscar Isaac, whose characters I cannot help but have the utmost sympathy for.
The chief difference between the two films is that ILD is gentler. Not lighter, necessarily, as any artist will tell you exactly what Llewyn is going through, but the film is more gently executed. There’s no serial killer, no blood-spray, and fewer lit lights in the Coens’ proverbial pinball machine of tropes. Myopic as Llewyn might be at times, the narrative seems to care for him, and it never feels like he’s being tormented at the hands of the filmmakers just for the fun of it.
Llewyn is a folk musician in the ’60s Greenwich Village scene, homeless and fading into obscurity after the other half of his musical duo, Timlin and Davis, has killed himself. The film’s narrative is circular, beginning and ending with the same scene: Llewyn performs “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Cafe, receives a warm reception, and is subsequently beaten in the alley by a mysterious stranger for heckling the previous night’s performer (the man’s wife, who closely resembles Maybelle Carter, perhaps indicating that the man in the alley is A.P. Carter himself, not that it makes any difference to the story). The movement of the film involves Llewyn’s attempt to find something, anything, to ground him, which he hopes will be the success of his music (and, failing that, returning to the merchant marines). Before heading to Chicago to hear what producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) thought of his solo record, Llewyn records a hilarious novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” with his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and local musician Al Cody (Adam Driver), but needs money immediately and thus must sacrifice any potential royalties. He also finds out that Jean (Carey Mulligan), Jim’s wife with whom Llewyn recently had a one-night stand, is pregnant, and the child might be his. With all of these conflicts on his (and our) mind, Llewyn makes the long trek to Chicago with friends of Al: belligerent Roland Turner (John Goodman), a heroin-addicted and seemingly narcoleptic jazz musician, and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a laconic beat poet. This is some of the funniest Goodman material in a long time, particularly a hilariously blowhardy anecdote about Welsh Rarebit.
The most important material is what comes between the twin alleyway beatings: the steps Llewyn makes, even if they yield no touchable reward. Grossman doesn’t think Llewyn could make it as a “front guy” and offers to make him backup singer of a Peter-Paul-and-Mary-style group, but Llewyn refuses to sell out, despite the generous offer. It’s a truly heartbreaking scene: Llewyn plays his heart out, singing “The Death of Queen Jane” in the empty Gate of Horn while Abraham’s Bud Grossman listens so intently that we’re almost sure he’ll agree to manage Llewyn as a solo act. But this is part of the Coen brothers’ ingenuity: getting the audience’s hopes and expectations up, not to simply shoot them to pieces, but to make us feel so foolish for ever thinking those expectations were possible. Even so, we hope that someone else will give Llewyn a straightforward “yes” as he hitches all the way back to New York.
There are other threads in the story, but they don’t amount to what I’d call a plot, which is why this film seems so grounded in reality while also immersed in Coen magic. The one bit of connective tissue between each of the film’s segments is an orange cat, which belongs to Llewyn’s friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (whose relationship to Mike Timlin, Llewyn’s deceased singing partner, are nebulous, and who tend to show Llewyn off like a trophy) and follows Llewyn out the front door one day. Not knowing what to do with it, he allows it to come along with him, at times losing it, mixing it up with other cats, experiencing great joy (and thus igniting it in us) when he finds it again and bonds with it, great horror when he blindsides an identical ghost-cat on the highway, and finding meaning in the cat’s name, Ulysses. Veteran Coen-viewers will dig metaphors out of every possible corner, but this film spells out its metaphor in the very beginning when Mitch Gorfein’s secretary mishears something Llewyn says: “Llewyn is the cat.” Llewyn, while on quite a different (and less successful) quest than Odysseus, realizes that he’s been on an incredible journey (just like the cat in the Disney film that came out in the early ’60s), and as we make this realization with him, we too search for evidence that some good has come from it.
The other major piece of Llewyn’s life is his sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles), whose name itself seems to spite Llewyn. Their father’s mind has deteriorated and he’s been in a nursing home, unvisited by Llewyn (whose difficult childhood is never vocally explored because the only people he talks to about it already know what happened) until after the latter returns from Chicago. Llewyn, before more bad luck strikes, attempts to connect with his father for the first time by singing “The Shoals of Herring,” a song they both liked in the past, but epiphanies don’t come easily to those in his father’s situation.
Unfinished statements (due to interruption) play a big part in the film’s dialogue, even bigger than do characters interrupting themselves and repeating the words of others in The Big Lebowski. Llewyn begins to talk about his mother, and he’s interrupted. Roland Turner begins yet another tall tale just as Llewyn tires of his bullshit and will not let him finish. Llewyn tells Jean that he considers the world to be populated by two types of people: those who divide the world into two types of people, and – but Jean interrupts him. “And losers?” In some ways, this mirrors what we are allowed to witness in the whole of Llewyn’s life: our experience of it is interrupted before we can really see where it’s going. Folk music is about to explode thanks in large part to Bob Dylan, who performs onstage right after Llewyn, playing a very similar song, suggesting that Llewyn is either about to achieve widespread relevance (perhaps his unfortunate failure to rejoin the merchant marines was meant to be?) or, more likely, that he’s about to be overshadowed, as so many were. But there are other things we want to know about: is he going to visit his ex and their child in Akron? Is his record ever going to sell? Will his relationship with his sister improve? Will he visit his father again? Despite the film’s final “Au revoir,” Llewyn’s life beyond the end credits is still open-ended; we’ve only been with him for a few days.
I must agree with the Brothers Coen: it is much more interesting to watch a person confront real struggles than to watch a formulaic coming-of-age narrative again and again. It’s no coincidence, then, that this film has been snubbed by all of the televised award ceremonies, including the Oscars, whose Best Picture nominees are all highly stylized era films that involve a loser becoming a winner or an oppressed person overcoming unfair odds. But this even further highlights Inside Llewyn Davis as a great film: it is a film that refuses to sell out, about a guy who refuses to sell out. He refuses to change his sound, to let other people dictate what he plays, and to change his name to something more easily pronounceable (Turner hears it as “Lou N. Davis”) as so many musicians, including Bob Dylan and Al Cody, have done. He even refers to goody-good folk singer Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) as a robot, asking him if he plugs himself in or has “higher function;” later, Grossman comments that Troy “really connects with people.” How beautifully echoed this theme is when looking at the formulaic and nearly identical narratives people continue to flock to year after year.
Does Llewyn achieve anything? I’m more inclined to look at micro details. Llewyn has made steps. Even if Grossman only considered him “okay,” he still traveled to Chicago with no money and played a huge music venue in front of a big-shot. Even if his father is too far gone to know what’s going on, Llewyn still overcame a lot of his own stubbornness in order to attempt to connect with him. He finally plays “Fare Thee Well” without Mike, and the audience likes it. Even if Jean considers him a loser, he still tells her he loves her, and we realize in that moment that plenty of what Jean does for and says to Llewyn throughout the film are not things you do for and say to someone you genuinely hate. “Tell me who you love / tell me who you love.”
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan.