Inside Llewyn Davis

February 3, 2014


One can approach a Coen Brothers movie in a number of ways, especially when writing about it.  The narrative of their career is interesting and unique, and their recent financial success deserves any number of think piece analyses of the trajectory of commercial and artistic potential.  There’s the way their recent films have more or less exploded the old belief that their films were either darkly comic thriller-dramas or absurd goofball comedies.  There is, perhaps most importantly, the fact that they rival and often exceed the arthouse auteurs from around the globe, not only in the depth and quality but doing so in a decidedly intelligent, unflashy way.  They’re also, in their way, classicists when it comes to their approach to filmmaking – unfussy visuals that pack a hell of a whallop when they need to and an organized, almost clinical in their storytelling.  One can investigate the historical aspects of the 60s Greenwich Village scene depicted in Inside Llewyn Davis, but I won’t because, for one, I know close to nothing about it and for two, I don’t particularly care.  There’s also the fact that ILD is perhaps the most critic-friendly movie they’ve ever made as it’s about a frustrated artist, and let’s be honest, many critics and bloggers are frustrated artists. 

I considered all of those approaches to some extent or another, but I think what truly sets this film apart as something great, having watched it for a second time now, is that it is one of the finest and most attuned studies of what it is like to live with your asshole self.  The Coens have been accused of laughing at their characters, and they certainly to an extent do – the entire engine of A Serious Man was the many ways in which they could put their poor, hapless protagonist through the ringer – but what is not mentioned enough is their understanding.  I imagine it’s difficult not to empathise with your creations at least a little bit, but there’s a nodding sense of resigned love that shines through ILD that should put paid to any notions of cold, ironic distance.

What essentially boils down to “a week in the life…”, ILD is centered around the titular folk singer and guitar player, performed by Oscar Isaac with the pitch perfect amount of indignation and self loathing.  Through a series of ambling interactions and misadventures, a perceptive (and all too familiar) portrait emerges of a talented man who can’t get out of his own way, and somewhere deep inside, knows it.  It’s not an easy thing to pull off, especially with the risk of creating a caricature of an asshole and leaving it at that, but the Coens designed the film with to speak to potential reasons without ever coming out and saying it, denying both the audience and Davis the easy out of a simple causal explanation.  When Llewyn cruelly yells at the timid wife of his professor friend, it’s an understandable if awful outburst that comes from the frustrations we’ve already seen as well as reminder of his former partner, whose suicide hangs over every minute like a ghostly reminder of a potential future.

Indeed, the film plays on these potentials and mirrors through the variety of characters Llewyn knows and chances upon.  Jimmy (Justin Timberlake) is one of several other musicians whose life Davis might be able to have if he compromised on his rigid ethics concerning commercial performance, or “pandering” as he’d probably consider it.  John Goodman’s elder statesman of jazz is the heroin-addicted future he might have if he struggles along with the music, and he no doubt sees himself in the way he disparages what he considers to be a “lesser art”.  Troy (Stark Sands) seems a robotic, all-too-polite outcast from a 50s cliché, but he has the discipline that might pay dividends if Llewyn even considered attempting it.  Then there’s his father, who silently sits in a grim retirement home shitting himself, and we see the fear of what Llewyn thinks he’d become if he gave up on his dream to become a working stiff like all the “regular people” he so condescends to.

Despite all the explanations and empathy, there’s Llewyn’s own defects of character.  An ill-timed comment here, a prickly response there, and it all adds up.  His short sightedness (and economic desperation to get rid of a mistake) loses him royalties on a potential hit song that he was loathe to play.  He snaps at Jean (Carey Mulligan) for getting him a gig at the Gaslight and quickly backtracks, and if she didn’t know him as well as anyone he probably wouldn’t have.  His thoughtlessness to have a smoke with the window open lets the cat out which sets off yet another anxiety for him.  Then there are those moments where he knows he should do one thing, but doesn’t – leaving the cat in the car on the side of the highway, which hauntingly may or may not have ended poorly later on (he certainly thinks it did), or that brief moment where he sees the freeway turn-off to go to Akron to visit the child he only just learned about.  The key to the character is that he knows, and he seems helpless in the face of himself to do anything about it.  It’s not for nothing that his righteous indignation at playing a song at dinner leads to him absurdly shouting that it’s “how he pays the rent”.

Of course this is the Coen Brothers, and their universe is a particularly moral one.  They might empathise with Llewyn, but they don’t excuse him.  The filmmaking coup de grace comes with the structural face punch (both literally and figuratively) reveal, and we come to realize that it will never get any better for him.  The magic of the film is revealing the universality of specificity.  This is a film set in a particular time and place, but there’s something depressingly recognizable about Llewyn and his many failings.  Arrogance masks self-doubt, and righteousness excuses personal failings.  Llewyn’s defects work as coping mechanisms to get him through the endless string of disappointments he faces in the film, and the irony is that those mechanisms are why he has to cope.


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