Inside Llewyn Davis
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
by Chad Jewett
In many ways, you get the sense that it might be easy for some to take the Coen brothers for granted. It certainly seems like the Academy did today (Thursday, January 16th and the day the Academy announced its 2014 nominee slate), as the brothers’ latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, their acerbic snapshot of the early ‘60’s New York folk scene, received zero nominations in any major category. None. There is almost no reasonable thesis for arguing that the film exists on the plane of 12 Years A Slave or The Wolf of Wall Street, or even something as surprising as Her, but with nine films being nominated, and an optional tenth spot left unfilled, you can’t help but feel that this wasn’t the result of a banner year for good film (which it was) but rather the Academy’s tacit way of showing opprobrium for this film specifically. As is the case with the lesser work of Steven Spielberg, and, until the anxious (what if Scorcese dies before we get a chance to give him his Oscar?!) make-up call that was The Departed, Martin Scorsese, you get the sense that Oscar dislikes nothing more than “good” Coen brothers movies. In a year of greater bounty War Horse wouldn’t have sniffed that nomination. The same goes for the dreadful Gangs of New York. But the difference is that Inside Llewyn Davis is actually quite good. It just may be that the film’s tartness, its sour view of exactly the kind of earnest, art-obsessed value systems that have powered the best films of this year, isn’t quite as welcome at the table as it’s been in recent years. There’s something exhausting about the movies of Joel and Ethan Coen; but that fatigue only really connects when it’s exhaustive – when the duo is able to separate their films constant bafflement at human squabbles with an operatic willingness to make every version of that story the biggest book of the Old Testament. What hurts Inside Llewyn Davis might be that it settles for being the Sorrow Songs – beautiful, concise, complicated — only with little patience for sorrow.
Inside Llewyn Davis follows its titular hero (?), played by Oscar Isaac (who is terrific in a performance that draws out both love and hate for the character), as he attempts to navigate the swift waters of the Greenwich Village folk boom. Llewyn is another in a long line of the Coens’ sad-sack male seekers (it’d be easier to list the films that don’t fit this archetype: Fargo, and…?), this time a folk-singing also-ran left playing lukewarm gigs at the Gaslight as others, like Justin Timberlake’s waspy cornball milquetoast, are swept up in the goldrush that will soon make Bob Dylan a household name. Llewyn alienates and/or shamelessly uses everyone around him, subjecting ex-girlfriends, godly-patient club promoters, and well-meaning benefactors to his moody, too-precious pretensions when he’s not too busy ignoring their feelings. At different points in the film Davis loses an old professor’s cat after crashing in his apartment, curses out the kind but daft professor’s wife for singing harmonies on a song from his old duo, and apparently repeatedly heckles fellow performers at the Gaslight. Oddly enough for the Coens’, who usually have little trouble punishing the well-meaning (see: A Serious Man), the film seems content to give the decent their happiness and to leave the almost epically self-centered Llewyn wallowing. Inside Llewyn Davis opens with a beautifully shot performance by Llewyn that, despite its organic loveliness, is all but ignored (albeit politely) by his audience. That schism is a recurring theme, and the Coens’ create a clever frustration in cycling through these moments where Davis finds it impossible to connect, even if we the audience can sense the beauty in his music. That his actions and choices are often so ugly might help explain that distance – even we might reserve our willingness to applaud too loudly a man like Llewyn.
The film itself shows the most taste for the Baby Boomer Village life of its opening third, all grey-scale interiors and impeccable clothes that the camera lingers on with relish. Frayed LP slips and dog-eared books litter walk-up apartments and dark and dusty coffee shops; Llewyn Davis and a former flame, pregnant with Davis’s baby and seeking money for an abortion, played by an always-great Carey Mulligan, sit in a Washington Square at once recognizable and otherworldly. The film is an aesthetic marvel, crisply photographed and lovingly arranged (those interior spaces are especially great and especially well-shot — apartment kitchens, flea-trap bedrooms, a cavernous folk club in Chicago, aglitter with sun-dappled dust — all evoke a lived-in warmth serving all the more to emphasize the film’s cold perspective on humanity), offering a version of the city you almost never see in film; the more bohemian neighborhoods that you’d find down the cross-streets overlooked by Holly Golightly, a pale bit of New York youth perfectly matched by the pale, lunar beauty of both Isaac and Mulligan. That Mulligan’s character, herself a folk singer (seemingly based on Mary Travers) is portrayed as such a joyless scold — despite her obvious reasons, given Llewyn’s various sins – might have an additional hand in the film’s lack of Oscar nods; of all the familiar Coen tics, their general inability to write likable, sympathetic, or even interesting, female characters (Fargo, True Grit, and bits of No Country For Old Men not withstanding) feel especially tiresome at this point.
The film finds a fascinating second gear as Davis sets out for Chicago with Roland Turner, a grizzled jazz hepcat (played by a bilious John Goodman), a vaguely menacing, ticking-time bomb James Dean clone named Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund), and a tag-along alley cat. The cat ends up being something of a spirit animal for Llewyn, a survivor that the musician has as much trouble committing to as anyone or anything else in his life. The drive is filled with tension, the soundtrack bouncing between Llewyn’s (still-lovely) singing, Roland’s odd monologues on folk, voodoo, and his own life, and attempted conversations with Johnny, whose face is locked in barely concealed threat. Inside Llewyn Davis actually recalls its least likely Coen analogue, No Country For Old Men, in these road scenes, the nighttime highway ticking away beneath the eerie drone of rubber on asphalt. Davis’s time in Chicago is piteous (a shot of Llewyn huddled in a Chicago diner, melted snow gushing from his cracked shoes, is especially painful), as is his meeting with a famous folk promoter, played by F. Murray Abraham — who, like everyone but Llewyn and ourselves, can’t seem to hear the young man’s voice, is immune to those melodies — but it feels even more like a necessary narrative evil between those highway interludes where late-nite diners are hauntingly, artifically bright oases, where the exhaustion creeping into the face of Llewyn as he makes his way back to New York looks like the slow creep of looming disaster. Indeed, for a film so convincingly dedicated to one man’s pathetic attempts at folk stardom in the West Village, Inside Llewyn Davis is, oddly enough, also a love-letter to the forgotten lore and dark romance of the U.S. interstate. There’s a bit of Tom Waits’ beat-poet paranoia, also obsessed with the long spans of tarmac between different versions of “Nowhere,” in these giddily spooky night drives, lit only with headlights, accompanied only by the boom-hiss of the road.
The trip to Chicago underlines what the movie, at the end of its brief hour-and-forty minute runtime, makes clear: that Llewyn Davis is his own worst enemy. His impoverished scrambling reaches its most desperate lows back in a frigid New York as Llewyn hopelessly tries to reconnect to his own back chapters. The late-film attempts by Davis to cheer himself with self-comparisons to Ulysses or the intrepid animals of Disney’s The Incredible Journey only end up serving as self-deception. Like a record spinning, Llewyn’s return to New York constitutes the same-old song, with a particularly Coen-like visualization of that repetition that I won’t spoil here. Suffice to say that, in trying to convince himself that his journey has been that of Odysseus, Llewyn ends up with the wrong Greek myth. In actually, he’s a hell of a lot more like Sisyphus, pushing that bolder back up that hill. I look at the list of films nominated for Best Picture this year – film’s either about true love or true evil, film’s willing to condemn the worst in the American spirit, or willing to celebrate the best in American endurance, and I don’t wonder much why Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t among them. It’s all that time spent in the spaces between love and hate, the roads between promise and failure, the hours between midnight and dawn. We love it when the Coen’s either make us laugh or make us terrified in those spaces; but Inside Llewyn Davis is perhaps a bit too much about making us tired.