Film #16: Inside Llewyn Davis
(Writers & Directors: Joel and Ethen Coen)
One of the most common complaints against the Coen brothers is that they seem to look down on their characters, gleefully playing God as they move them from one terrible situation to the next. I’ve never quite agreed with this assessment, as there’s just too much love put into these characters, even the dupes, to believe the Coens are condescending. But aside from Marge Gunderson, I’m hard pressed to think of a Coen brothers’ character I’d be comfortable calling three-dimensional. While memorable, the Harry Pfarrers, Jeffrey Lebowskis, and Ed Cranes of the world are singular and superficial (and this isn’t a criticism). There’s no real attempt to parse them out as real, living, feeling human beings. In that way, Inside Llewyn Davis is a radical departure for the Coens. While Llewyn has been lumped in with the lovable dummies of Coen films of old, there’s a depth and richness to him that pierces through the brothers’ familiar tropes.
Llewyn is not an easy character to like. He’s impulsive, grating, mean, and entitled. He wanders from couch to couch, causing trouble wherever he goes. Were it not for Oscar Isaac’s amazing performance, this film could have gone off the rails. He gives Llewyn a vulnerability, a knowingness, that, while not excusing his actions, at least lets us understand them. And I don’t agree with the critics (and my wife) who think that Llewyn is another dumb Coen’s oaf. Yes, he makes bad decisions that cost him financially and personally, but each of those decisions is understandable, and perhaps even defendable. Were Llewyn to be told the outcome of his actions in advance, I still feel like he would make the same choices. While this seems to be the definition of insanity, I think what I admire so much about Llewyn is the rock-like core that drives his music and life. There’s a refusal to compromise in his heart that both makes him destined to fail and a genius. He knows the consequences, and while he wishes things could be different, he isn’t willing to change his values to do so. [And I think this stubbornness actually makes the film’s final scene an incredibly hopeful one, although I’m not sure many people have read it that way.]
The natural connection in the Coens’ filmography to Inside Llewyn Davis is Barton Fink. Like Barton, Llewyn is an artist struggling to sell his voice in a world that doesn’t want to listen, and like Barton, he’s forced to endure a nearly endless string of bad beats. But the differences are crucial and really mark Llewyn as unique in their work. First, unlike Barton, Llewyn’s inner turmoil is not manifested figuratively. Barton’s disintegration is visualized in the peeling walls of his hotel and John Goodman’s murderous devil (Barton has sold his soul to the Devil of Hollywood), whereas Llewyn’s turmoil is shown through his own actions and personal relationships. They don’t turn to metaphor here (maybe the cat, although it’s much more subtle), and instead, they let his actions speak for themselves. Second, whereas Barton Fink is really about Barton’s struggle with actually producing art, especially for money, we never see Llewyn creating. His performances are already perfectly realized, but he struggles to find a proper audience to appreciate them. Or rather, Llewyn struggles to find an audience who appreciates them in the right ways. Each performance resonates differently depending on his audience, and never quite in the way that Llewyn wants, even if they enjoyed it. Maybe this is a comment on the Coen brothers’ own career trajectory. Or maybe not. Finally, the plot is almost entirely driven by Llewyn and his own actions. In Barton Fink, Barton is constantly trying to stay afloat as things happen to him (this isn’t unique to Barton Fink for the Coens. A Serious Man is probably the perfect representation of this filmmakers-as-vengeful-Gods tendency), but Llewyn makes his own bed and is forced to lie in it. There is a direct cause-and-effect relationship to Llewyn’s actions that is unparalleled in the Coens’ work. [Maybe I’m overlooking some of their stuff here: Fargo and Burn After Reading seem to complicate this argument, but while both of those stories are driven by bad choices, their effects are radically altered by characters and events completely out of the instigators’ control]
Naturally, the Coens have littered Llewyn’s world with an amazing cast of characters. They write these characters so specifically that someone like Al Cody (a failed singer-songwriter much like Llewyn) or Troy Nelson (a pristine Army boy who sings beautiful folk songs while on leave) are able to make a lasting impact with 5 minutes on screen. And of course, John Goodman is given a fantastic supporting role as jazzman Roland Turner that he just destroys. Like so many of their films, this is the joy of watching the Coen brothers work. You are just anxious to see who Llewyn is going to run into next and how he reacts to them.
Ultimately, a film like Inside Llewyn Davis, for all its great character work, really hinges on the music. While it isn’t a musical, we are presented with probably five or six songs performed in their entirety by the actors themselves. To their credit, the Coens go all in from the jump. The movie opens with Llewyn on stage, singing the hauntingly beautiful “Hang Me” at The Gaslight in Greenwhich Village. I was hooked instantly. Oscar Isaac’s performance, and the song itself, set the stage for the rest of the movie. If this sequence doesn’t grab you, don’t bother hanging around.
I can’t wait until this movie hits Blu-Ray. I’m anxious to watch it again (and again). There’s so much more to sink into (how funny, beautifully shot, and depressing the film is), but I think this is a nice opening salvo.