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.