Directed by the Coen Brothers
Every time I watch a Coen Brothers’ film, I think it might be my new favorite. Inside Llewyn Davis seems to follow the mold of their most recent films that blur the lines between parody and honesty and are jam packed with memorable characters, sharp dialogue and an ultimate sense that none of it matters. Other Coen films in this category include Burn After Reading (2008), A Serious Man (2009) and Hail, Caesar! (2016).
These films, plus Inside Llewyn Davis, were made following 2007’s No Country For Old Men, possibly the most serious of the Coen Brothers’ films. It’s like their work fluctuated between comedies and action movies, always a little slapstick, but then they got serious for a moment, and their films since have been a deconstruction of what it means to make a movie. But these most recent movies, except for Hail, Caesar! aren’t about movies. It’s just that they seem to be about the minutia and structure of life in the same way a movie about movies breaks down the structure of those movies… if that makes sense.
Their films always seem philosophical, often with religious undertones. Those undertones, though, are never preachy. These are filmmakers raising questions rather than answering them.
And Inside Llewyn Davis is full of questions and even a little mystery. It’s a story about a struggling albeit talented folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village. This is a world of album covers of happy folk singers and joyous music, but our protagonist, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is none of those things. Maybe he once was, though. We know early on that he had a singing partner, and their songs weren’t far off from the type of pop folk music that sells well. But then his partner killed himself for reasons we’re not meant to understand or that aren’t important, and Llewyn finds himself couch surfing while he figures out how to live and how to survive.
But with that being said, one of the most immediate plot concerns is Llewyn’s efforts to track down a cat he lost. This is a film that poses so many ideas and theories for what it means to be a musician, to be a good person, to be a member of society and to dream, yet that stuff is all in the background. Those things that often define us only come about through a series of moments in which we do things as immediate as try to find a lost cat.
In other words, no one sets out to be a good person and then becomes a good person. That attribute comes from a series of actions. Llewyn Davis is a character who seems like he’s never had to make decisions before. He floats around the city, going nowhere, but he derides everyone else’s way of living. He mocks another singer, Troy Nelson, for his involvement in the military, he lashes out at one of the hosts who puts him up for a night, and he tries to poke holes in the marriage and lifestyle of the only man who gets him a paying gig and the woman he impregnated.
Llewyn Davis is not a very good person, but the movie never seems an attempt to break him down. Instead we get a bunch of moments that slightly redeem him in our eyes. We first meet Llewyn as he sings a beautiful tune onstage, and then we see him get beat up by a stranger in an alleyway. From the beginning we should like this guy, not just because he’s talented (and aren’t singers typically presented as soulful, empathetic people?), but because the world is trying to keep him down. Then he desperately tries to hold onto a cat around town, and most people like animals, meaning that when Llewyn chases after the tabby, we hope he catches him.
But slowly we see how rotten Llewyn’s core is. He’s mean to everyone, particularly Jean (Carey Mulligan), the woman he made pregnant, but her constant lashing out at him forces us to at least consider his side of the story, which there really isn’t one. Llewyn’s a slimy dude, but Jean is so abrasive it’s jarring. While we understand her fury, her character seems a little two one-dimensional. She’s always angry or worked up, and that’s not fair to the character or the performance, it just seems to be a bit of an underwritten character.
As a struggling musician, you might expect there to be some story arc in which he works his way to the doorstep of fame and success. While there is a scene in Chicago that could help launch Llewyn’s career, this arc is never the focus of the movie. Instead it’s about Llewyn being forced to look into his soul. Every interaction with another person highlights how transactional his dealings with humanity have become, and each conversation shines a light on how miserable of a person he is. He either makes fun of you or he needs something from you.
In one scene, while consulting the doctor who will perform Jean’s abortion, Llewyn learns that another woman he impregnated two years ago never went forward with the anticipated abortion. Right then and there is when Llewyn learns that he likely has a child living in Akron, Ohio. Later, on a lonely road trip to and from Chicago, Llewyn passes a sign for Akron and looks at the distant lights longingly.
But maybe it’s not longingly. That’s just our emotion in the scene, how we might expect we’d react. It’s possible that Llewyn’s blank expression is just one of mild bitterness or resignation. Hell, maybe he looks at Akron with a sour disposition, a representation of another disgustingly ordinary life. Llewyn, after all, is about living the artist’s life.
This is something he points out to Jean, pointing out that her and husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) are closer to sell-outs than real artists. She correctly points out that Llewyn depends on people like her to survive. He’s a leach, but he loathes the people who keep him afloat because they don’t want the same things as him.
In this conversation, Jean tells Llewyn that he’s headed nowhere, and by the end of the film we don’t know where the story begins or ends. That’s because the movie ends with a scene that started the film: Llewyn getting beat up in a grungy alley.
While Llewyn does attempt to go somewhere with his life, even trying to join the military as a last ditch effort, he remains stuck, almost cosmically, like the world doesn’t want him to leave, even as it barely tolerates him staying around. Maybe the world needs people like Llewyn, and that’s the point of the story. Greenwich Village in this movie is scene in faded pastels, and the lights of the scenes are fuzzy like the clearest visual cue of nostalgia. It could be argued that he’s in some kind of heaven or purgatory. There certainly is a dream-like quality to the landscape because of the color tones but also the blending of real locations and CGI-produced sets to make modern day New York resemble the same location 50 years earlier. It’s the same kind of effect I feel in a lot of David Fincher films.
All of this, to me, suggests that Llewyn is in some kind of purgatory which would signify that he’s stuck due to reasons beyond his control. Now, he isn’t actually in purgatory, of course. This film, like most Coen Brothers films is about ideas and questions rather than, as I said before, answers. Most art films are like that. The point isn’t exactly what’s going on, just what it says to you. You know, I just watched Personal Shopper, a Kristen Stewart film made last year, and the film doesn’t give you clear answers. It’s a story about a woman trying to make contact with the spirit of her deceased brother. It’s a great movie, and that’s mostly because, well for me, I was left thinking about what it could mean at the end. So I opened up reddit and checked to see what others had to say about the movie, and much of the conversation in one discussion thread was about whether or not Stewart’s character had actually died and when that would have been. This had never occurred to me, but I certainly understood how one might argue such a thing. Still, the point isn’t whether or not she’s dead. This isn’t an M. Night Shaymalan movie.
So with Inside Llewyn Davis, there are no answers, but there may be hints as to what the Coen Brothers want you to think. My impression is that people like Llewyn are kept down by a society that needs someone to beat up on. The movie ends with Llewyn getting beat up, dragging himself towards a lonely, cold street and watching his attacker’s taxi drive off, leaving him behind. Right before this, as he’s leaving the cafe at which he sometimes plays, a young Bob Dylan is onstage, starting a song. Llewyn focuses on him as he heads out, and we know that Bob Dylan has gone on to have a successful career. So right before Llewyn is beaten down in the most concrete way, he glimpses someone who is on the rise, like he’s on an elevator down, passing someone in an elevator going up.
There are also a couple other shots in the film that focus on what Llewyn sees and what that might make him feel. He sees a movie poster about the effort of a few animals trying to get home. It’s not hard to see this story as Llewyn’s efforts to find home, both physically (he is homeless) and spiritually. He realizes he has a kid, and we see him visit his remaining, living family. These things matter to him even if he doesn’t yet know it.
But everyone in his family is somewhat inaccessible, partially due to his own fault. His child has never met him, and the child’s mother probably wants it that way, and his dad seems to have some form of dementia. Llewyn does have a sister, but she kicks him out of the house when he yells at her (again) for doing something no one could blame her for doing.
When Llewyn visits his silent father in the nursing home, he plays him another beautiful song. We expect there to be some kind of catharsis between the two of them, and his father does show visible signs of relief. When Llewyn’s finished with the song, he looks at his father and says, “oh my god.” We soon learn that his surprise is due to his father having an accident. It’s a surprising moment and another way the Coen Brothers undercut our expectations.
Again, there are no answers, no resolutions, nothing resembling catharsis. Llewyn is on a hamster wheel, and he’s stuck because the world won’t let him live, and he himself has become so rotten that he can barely keep himself alive. He doesn’t even have a winter coat for Chrissake.
My lasting impression of Llewyn Davis is a character who has been beaten down for so long that he expects it to happen again (as it does). Maybe he was once a nice, loving young man, the guy we see on his album cover “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the same type of figure we see on every other singer’s album cover. One of these other singers is Al Cody (Adam Driver), a musician who seems way too chipper on the outside but who describes his place, with some resignation, as a dump. Maybe he’s only not as disenchanted as Llewyn because he hasn’t been playing folk music long enough.
The singers and performers, no matter how jovial and optimistic they are, will end up like Llewyn. The world will make them suffer, and it will make them hate themselves for it. At least, that’s the feeling I got.