I love Coen Brother films. They’ve made about 16 of them, and I can honestly say I love perhaps most of them. That fandom doesn’t always predispose me towards loving anything they do (the films of theirs that I don’t like I downright hate), but it does make me cautious.
That caution was probably at play when I avoided watching Inside Llewyn Davis for as long as I could manage. In the end my curiosity won out, and I’m the better for it, surely.
Even critics who like the flick referred to it back in the day as a ‘lesser Coen Brothers’ flick, as more of a curio than anything else. I’d like to dispute that retarded judgement right here, right now, right here, right now. It’s certainly not a crowdpleaser on the level of an O Brother Where Art Thou? or a viscerally brutal thriller like No Country for Old Men, but it’s certainly coming from the same place that they come from when they make their quieter, more philosophical efforts like A Serious Man and Barton Fink.
The protagonist in Coen Brothers’ flicks isn’t always likeable, or relatable, but that doesn’t usually doom their flicks to irrelevance. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is definitely something of a prick. When the film begins, we know that it’s 1961, and that the main character is a folksinger playing his stuff in some grotty underground grotto in probably Greenwich Village. He plays and sings fairly well, and while he’s playing the audience is silent and respectful.
They applaud at the end, but it’s not rapturous applause. Llewyn is told someone is waiting for him outside.
He gets slapped around for his troubles, and for heckling someone the night before, apparently.
When he wakes up, we get the clear impression it’s not in his own place, because he doesn’t have his ‘own’ place. Llewyn is apparently a couch surfer par excellence, mooching and leaching off of everyone he can.
After the song he played at the venue, someone mentions that ‘Mike’ used to play that song too. ‘Mike’, we eventually figure out, was Llewyn’s former duo member, with whom he used to play, but no more. So in a fairly compact telling, we’ve figured out in the first few minutes or so that Llewyn is one of those people to whom the entire world seems to be completely indifferent to. The kindness of one academic couple can’t seem to counterbalance the fact that the world itself is either uninterested in Llewyn or conspiring to make things just that little bit harder for him.
What follows from here, deceptively, could just as easily be called The Trials and Tribulations of Llewyn Davis. The reason why it’s easy to lump the film in with A Serious Man is that they both seem to be stories that have the thematic link of being somewhat existential in their treatment of their protagonists. There are major differences, but they might be linked.
In A Serious Man we were made to wonder, as we watched what befell the hapless protagonist, about the moral universe in which these characters lived. If it was, in fact, a modern retelling of the Book of Job, a fairy tale where God, to impress the Devil, shows His Satanic Majesty just how devoted one of his believers is by tormenting him horribly. A Serious Man tried to mine humour and some pathos from depicting a man’s actions and inactions having strange, counterintuitive impacts on his life as if to say how absurd it is to believe that there is a link between our actions and what happens in the universe as if it’s being directed by an interventionist god.
Is it all entropy, disorder, chaos and random? Well of course it is, Virginia, and there’s no fucking Santa Claus either, while we’re at it. In A Serious Man, it didn’t seem that the protagonist was doing anything to either deserve stuff when his life went bad or when things went his way. Llewyn Davis, on the other hand, seems like a bit of a shit, bit of a cad, so you could almost see that he’s ‘earning’ the hardships that come his way.
Most people don’t seem to care for his music. He seems to be a bit of a dog when it comes to the ladies. He’s obviously horribly selfish, rude, abusive and glum. While the performance itself is somewhat charming (in that Oscar Isaac is great in this as he is in most things), the character himself is not charming in his world. There are people who humour him, or at least allow him to exploit them, but most other people are either indifferent to him or outright hostile. And an ex-lover (Carey Mulligan) greets him with barely restrained hostility (restrained only in the sense that she doesn’t want her partner, Justin Timberlake, to know of their dalliance).
Plus she’s pregnant, and she’s not the first to get knocked up by a prize catch like Llewyn, we find out. See, in something like this, if we take the ‘art world’ clichés that we’ve absorbed over so many years, we would expect to see a story where an arrogant jerk like Llewyn could act like a goddamn monster to all sorts of people for most of a film, but because he’s both passionate about his music and very talented, everything would work out for him in the end. Either that, or maybe some stuff would start going his way.
If Llewyn’s choices are what dictate his outcomes (not that I’m saying that they do in this flick’s moral universe), then we wonder as to what those choice mean. There’s a moment where Llewyn, driving back to New York after yet another soul crushing defeat, where we think he’s going to take a certain turn off, to take a path in which he could make redress for his selfishness in the past (all I’m saying about it is “Akron, Ohio”), and yet the flick toys with this expectation.
And yet directly after it seems as if Llewyn has ‘killed’ something, being a cat, which represents… something else, perhaps. A cat plays a comical part of the story insofar as it seems to be an additional burden placed upon Llewyn’s journey from nothing to nobody, and yet even this is deceptive, in that its resolution seems to indicate how superfluous Llewyn is in his own story.
The musical performances are surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because I couldn’t pretend to be the world’s biggest fan of folk music. What was striking to me was that clearly it was Oscar Isaac’s singing the whole time, and it might have even been recorded live, as well, which is even stronger. And as good as I found those performances, it was the utter disinterest he would be greeted with immediately afterwards that told me we were seeing something special that no-one around Llewyn could see at all.
It might be a low-key flick overall, but there are plenty of signature Coen touches throughout. The perversity of the universe around Llewyn notwithstanding, there are the elements that make you think of what you like best about their films. At one point Llewyn is lugging around a crate of his remaindered LPs, and he goes to stow them under the table of another aspiring folk singer Al Cody (Adam Driver), who he’s crashing with. His path to stowing them out of sight is prevented by another crate, identical, under the table, except it’s full of Al Cody’s remaindered LPs. Coen Brother’s repertory mainstay John Goodman assays another odious cameo role as a monstrous jazz musician, perhaps meant to recall Dr John, who is as surly and abusive as he is talkative.
At a point where Llewyn is visiting his father, a man who appears to be institutionalised perhaps for dementia, he plays him a song. We think, as Llewyn plays a song that his father used to like, that he might be remembering it, and enjoying it, moved enough almost to show emotion. But then, at the end, Llewyn figures out what his father is actually being moved by.
Through it all you can sense that Llewyn is a bee’s dick away from cracking, and yet the flick’s construction actually plays a trick on us, as we don’t even realise there’s a certain chronology at play until the very end, where we come to realise that certain events preceded others, and we’re actually coming in on the beginning of one story and the ending of another.
And then the flick is capped with the wicked apparition of a certain unmistakable folk singer taking the stage after Llewyn’s gig at the end, someone who in this, the real world, blew the whole folk singer thing apart for ever more. How’s that for dramatic irony?
I really enjoyed this flick, a great deal, but I wouldn’t pretend to say that it’s a great character study or a tremendous expose of the early 60s folk scene in the Village (as if I’d want to watch such a wretched thing). It is an interesting week or so in the life of someone who’s a bit of a dick, to whom life never seems to cut a break, and yet he struggles on anyway.
Anyone who knows me could possibly see why such a story could be so appealing.
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“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song.” – that must be why I can’t stand them, because they’re timeless – Inside Llewyn Davis