30 Years of Coens: Inside Llewyn Davis

A circular folk-music odyssey

CBS Films

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, No Country For Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, and True Grit. The landing page for the whole series is here.)

Notes on Inside Llewyn Davis  (2013)

• What to make of this movie? I wasn’t sure when I watched it twice last year, and I’m still not sure now. There are moments when I find it mesmerizing, moments when I find it maddening, and moments when I find it both at once. It is every bit as cryptic as Barton Fink or A Serious Man, but without the suggestion of an existential mystery hiding beyond the curtain. The protagonist is the victim of neither a psychotic delusion nor a capricious God. He’s simply a man, neither particularly good nor bad, stuck in a cycle of poor choices.

• The man in question is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a 1961 Greenwich Village folk singer who’d found some success with his partner, Mike Timlin. But Mike, we learn, has thrown himself off the George Washington Bridge, and Llewyn, now a solo artist, has retreated into himself in almost every way. As an artist, he’s remote and self-absorbed, despite his clear talent. When he visits Chicago to play for the powerful manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), the latter tells him “I don’t see a lot of money here” and implicitly compares him to a genial G.I.-turned-musician: “He connects with people.” As a person, Llewyn is easily wounded and spectacularly selfish, an “asshole” who, among other trespasses, gets his best friend’s girl (Carey Mulligan) pregnant and then surreptitiously asks said best friend (Justin Timberlake) for money to pay for her abortion. Inside Llewyn Davis is thus simultaneously the name of the film, of Llewyn’s solo album, and of his psychological condition: He is himself trapped inside Llewyn Davis.

• Oscar Isaac, who made his deepest previous impression on me in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, has his coming-out party as a major talent here: In almost any year other than 2013, he would have been a lock for a Best Actor nomination. Though Llewyn is by no means likable, Isaac renders him eminently relatable and compulsively watchable. It’s a tremendous feat, and a performance that ranks among the very best in any of the Coens’ films. On top of that, Isaac, a graduate of Julliard, performs his own music—once again selected with the help of T Bone Burnett—with exceptional skill yet just the right amount of emotional distance. (At a Q&A last year, Isaac said the advice Burnett gave him was “Play it like you’re playing to yourself.”) Llewyn’s background, style, and musical repertoire—though not, by most accounts, his personality—were based largely on folk singer Dave Van Ronk, as well as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and other figures of the period.

• The rest of the cast is strong, in particular Mulligan, who is deeply evocative despite limited screen time. John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund show up as an obnoxious jazz man and a laconic beat poet, respectively. (The latter is presumably a bit of an inside joke, as Hedlund starred in Walter Salles’s 2012 adaptation of On the Road.) There’s even an appearance by Isaac’s future Star Wars costar Adam Driver. But the small role that most lingers is that of F. Murray Abraham as Bud Grossman. What a voice. What a face. What an irresistible center of gravity. As I noted earlier this year in my review of The Grand Budapest Hotel, it is one of the great mysteries (and minor tragedies) of Hollywood that Abraham has had so few memorable big screen roles since his mid-1980s semi-stardom in Amadeus and The Name of the Rose.

• I would be remiss in not mentioning the Gorfeins’ cat—and the similar orange tabby that Llewyn mistakes for said cat after the former escapes—which function almost as Llewyn’s equivalent of Tom Reagan’s hat in Miller’s Crossing. (Several cats were reportedly used to play the roles, given their overwhelming inclination to ignore direction and do whatever they pleased.) When the cat’s name is revealed, late in the movie, to be “Ulysses,” it represents at least two jokes. First, like its namesake, it has returned home after a long journey. And second, it refers back to the Odyssey-themed O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its protagonist, Ulysses Everett McGill. It may even represent a sly point of comparison with Llewyn himself, who despite his Merchant Marine license is incapable of even making his way onto a ship.

Inside Llewyn Davis marked the Coens’ first feature collaboration with French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, previously best known for his work on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie and A Very Long Engagement, and on David Yates’s Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. (Delbonnel had also worked with the Coens on their contribution to the 2006 anthology film Paris, je t’aime.) As before with the Coens, it is a tremendously fruitful artistic collaboration. If there’s one thing I’d forgotten about Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s how flat-out gorgeous it is, even by the Coens’ standards. It’s a wintry, melancholy movie told in muted shades of gray, but with warming browns and golds scattered throughout. The result earned Delbonnel his fourth Academy Award nomination, though he did not win. It’s part of a remarkable Oscar pattern: Despite their exceptional talent, Coens cinematographers are zero for six in films they shot for the brothers, and a stunning one for 21 overall, the sole win coming for Emmanuel Lubezki for Gravity.

• At the top of this entry, I described Inside Llewyn Davis as devoid of “existential mystery,” though that is not quite true. Perhaps more than any of the Coens other films, Inside Llewyn Davis is scrupulously realistic—right up until its final sequence, in which there is an unexpected temporal shift back to the beginning of the film, with Llewyn again singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the club before being beaten up in the alley behind it. Like much else in the film, the meaning behind this shift is deliberately vague, somewhere between a simple chronological shuffling and a borderline-sci-fi reset. I do not pretend to have a definitive explanation (nor, in all honesty, do I suspect one exists), but here are a few thoughts. The principal significance of the doubling back seems clear enough: It is the most emphatic expression of Llewyn’s life as a closed loop of opportunities missed and bad choices repeated. This is the hamster wheel of dissatisfaction on which he has chosen to run. As Isaac described it in the same Q&A I cited above, “In a folk song you have a similar structure: After a few verses, you cycle back to the first verse, but it has a different meaning.”

• With regard to what that new meaning might be, I think the Coens offer a handful of different possibilities. Most obvious—and most optimistic—is the fact that the second time around, Llewyn shuts the door to the Gorfeins’ apartment before their cat escapes: Perhaps he does have the ability to learn from his mistakes after all. The (probably) most pessimistic signal is that in the re-telling of the evening we see that Llewyn is followed on stage by a young Bob Dylan—the artist who, arguably more than any other, swept away the classic folk tradition by writing and performing his own songs. Yet a third reading is offered by the final line of the film, in which Llewyn tells the cab bearing away his batterer, “au revoir”—not goodbye, but literally “to seeing you again,” as if he knows this encounter in the alley will be repeated. Though I like to picture these as three alternative readings, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One could argue, for instance, that Llewyn is improving himself incrementally (the cat), but has a long way to go (the future beatings), and in any case will be better off if he abandons folk music (the Dylanesque future). But however one chooses to read it, the final act is—according to one’s disposition—delightfully or infuriatingly open-ended.

• So how to rate this most recent installment of the Coen oeuvre? I could see putting it in the top tier, on the basis of its beauty, sophistication, and unorthodox cinematic vision. And I could see putting it in the bottom tier for its willful obscurity and utter lack of interest in the usual aesthetic and emotional compensations of cinema. But given that those are both ways of saying more or less the same thing—and that, not incidentally, I happen to have the number eight slot out of 16 open—I’m going to punt for now and place the movie smack dab in the middle (a spot, as I hope is clear by now, of lofty respect). Perhaps next time around, my conflicted responses will have clarified themselves further in one direction or another. Until then: Hang me, oh hang me.

Et Cetera:

Where I rank Inside Llewyn Davis among Coens films: #8

Where I rank its soundtrack, curated by T Bone Burnett, among Coens soundtracks curated by T Bone Burnett: #3 (out of 4)

Best line: “George Washington Bridge? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally. George Washington Bridge? Who does that?”

Best visual: Bud Grossman’s face, listening

Best sound: The opening chords of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”

Notable locales: Greenwich Village

Notable influences: Dave Von Ronk

Dream sequence(s): No

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Yes

Uniformed elevator operator: Yes

Number of characters who vomit: Zero, though Goodman foams at the mouth a bit

John Goodman going berserk: Only verbally

Next up: A few closing thoughts