Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
“There’s no success like failure. And failure’s no success at all,” Bob Dylan wrote. He could have been talking about any number of characters in the oeuvre of master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. Losers and has-beens and could-have-beens fascinate the brothers, and their newest film certainly follows this model. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling musician in the 1961 Greenwich Village, New York folk scene. He rotates crashing with various friends, unable to scrounge up enough money to ever pay his own way. His musical partner recently killed himself and Llewyn has been trying to get traction with his first solo record. His world gets even more complicated when Jean (Carey Mulligan) reveals that she’s pregnant; the baby’s father may be Llewyn or Jean’s husband and fellow performer, Jim (Justin Timberlake). Llewyn can’t catch a break.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a classic Coen creation, a character study of a misanthropic loser trying to find direction in a comical universe of indifference. I greatly look forward to every Coen picture and that’s because nobody writes characters like they do. There are no throwaway characters in a Coen universe. Even minor characters like the elevator Attendant or Manager’s Secretary are given sparks of personality, each fully formed figure creating a richer canvas. There is great pleasure in just listening to their characters speak, in natural cadences yet elevated with grace. Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception. Their storytelling is always rife with wonderful comic surprises and pit stops. The Coens are such brilliant technical craftsmen, that every shot is gorgeously composed, even without longtime cinematographer Roger Deakens (to give you an idea how old this movie was, Deakens was busy filming Skyfall). The music, supervised by O Brother maestro T. Bone Burnett, is impeccably performed and quite lovely to the ear, if you’re into folk music arrangements. If you’re not, well, it’s going to be a long movie experience.
But here’s the problem with Inside Llewyn Davis: the film will likely turn off most people. It’s not a comforting movie by any means. We’re stuck following a self-destructive struggling musician bounce around couch-to-couch, chasing dreams that will never seem in reach. And Llewyn is a tough character to love. He’s surly, careless, selfish, egotistical, and also jaded. And he’s just about the only character in the movie. Most of the other famous faces are fleeting supporting players. Only Mulligan (The Great Gatsby) is given a plurality of scenes to expand her perturbed character, and even those may not be enough. Much like Llewyn’s musical direction, this is a one-man show, and he’s not cuddly. But an unlikable protagonist is not uncommon. The Coens tease so many different directions for Llewyn to go that it’s likely that audiences will feel some degree of disappointment where the film does end up. It’s a circuitous path, proving Llewyn is the architect of his own fate, but at that point audiences may not care. They may just be happy to watch Llewyn punched in the face. The plot is pretty light, running into a series of various self-contained scenes, and there isn’t much in the way of closure. I’ve watched the film twice and while I appreciate it more I’m certain that Llewyn Davis will leave a majority of people feeling cold, more so than even A Serious Man.
Unlike former Coen creations, notably in A Serious Man and Barton Fink, our titular character is the architect of his own misery. He is a musician that identifies with an older class of folk artists, something that strikes him as genuine and touching the soul. He cannot stand artistic compromise. He won’t even accept a winter coat from his music manager. He wants no handouts. He chastises Jean about her and Jim’s attitudes toward the business, calling them “careerist” and “a little bit square.” To Llewyn, to sell out is the worst crime. Jean says that they’re just doing what they can to raise up the musical ranks, and maybe the songs aren’t top-notch, like a catchy but instantly dated novelty song about the Space Race (the sure-to-be Oscar-nominated “Please Mr. Kennedy”), but they’re commercial, they’re finding an audience, they’re making inroads, partially as a husband/wife act and partially due to their own physically attractive appearances, and it frustrates Llewyn greatly. A great example is early in the film a young Army vet on leave performs a wonderfully pure song with a beautiful voice. Llewyn scoffs at the mawkish nature of the tune. “He’s a great performer,” Jim advises. Llewyn takes umbrage at the distinction; a performer is not the same as a musician. The people getting ahead are the performers, the sellouts. One of Jean and Jim’s rising hits, “500 Miles,” lyrically suggests it was an old slave song that has been repackaged and homogenized for safe consumption. Llewyn is going to stick to his guns and make it on his own terms, with expected results. Late in the movie, after Llewyn performs before a record exec (F. Murray Abraham), so aching and affecting as he puts it all into the song, the exec simply responds: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” However, the exec offers Llewyn a chance to be in a trio he’s putting together, if he cleans up and knows how to keep to the background. It’s a real opportunity. Just not for Llewyn.
It all comes down to legacy and Llewyn contemplating what his will be. His singing partner is now defined by his death, finding cruel irony in their song, “If I Had Wings.” His father is known for his long dedication to the Navy, but now he sits alone in a nursing home, a prisoner to his own infirmary and defeated mind. A road trip partner, the pompous jazz musician Roland Turner (a royally hilarious John Goodman), seems like a Ghost of Christmas Future visit from a possible future Llewyn, the artist who’s an iconoclast only in his own mind. Throughout the film, Llewyn is beset with choices, different options he could take, one in particular stemming from a revelation involving an old girlfriend. And yet, much like the thematic nature of folks songs, we’re told, Llewyn looks for something new with something old, be they routines, goals, or occupations. The folk music scene is on the cusp of change with a more commercialized pendulum swing, as evidenced by a surprise new performer at the Gaslight in the closing minutes. Llewyn is contemplating his life beyond the world of show business and where he goes next.
And if there is a sad aspect to the Coens’ tale, it’s that Llewyn really is a talented musician. This is a breakout role for Isaac (Drive, Robin Hood) especially when you consider that he did all his own singing and guitar playing. It’s one of the most astonishing musical performances by an actor I’ve ever seen in a movie. The level of craft at command, the different slivers of passion he carefully puts into the performances, the trembling emotion, the merging of himself with the song. There’s a reason the Coens open the movie with Isaac performing the full rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” It crystallizes right away where the man’s talent level is, both the character and the actor. We’re left to then wonder why he hasn’t found his place in the industry, and the rest of the film is the explanation. This is the first film since perhaps 2007’s Once where full-length performances of songs really do move the story forward (I’m obviously excluding traditional musicals). Some have labeled the heavy use of song as lazy, distracting from an undercooked narrative, but I can literally go through every song in the film and justify its existence. Each tune, and the performance and performers, gives insight to character, plot, and state of mind.
Inside Llewyn Davis is an easy movie to admire but a harder one to love, unless you’re a fan of the Coen brothers or folk music in general. The protagonist is unlikable, his struggles his own doing either by hubris or integrity, the plot is rather loose with scattered supporting characters, and the film ends on a somewhat lackluster note that feels inconclusive. But then I keep going back to the richness of this world, the pop of the characters, the lyrical beauty to the unvarnished songs, and the concept of folk music as its own sense of purgatory (here me out, folk fans), the idea that we seek something new with something old, and so we follow in circles, like Llewyn’s onscreen journey. Isaac gives such a strong performance that you almost wish his character could catch a break. Almost. This is another technical marvel from the Coens, filled with their dark humor and their sense of cosmic melancholy, but Inside Llewyn Davis may ultimately find some strange sense of uplift as Llewyn continues to hold to his ambitions even as the world around him is changing, losing sight of artists like him. As long as we have the Coens, the Llewyn Davis’s of this world will get their due in one form or another.
Nate’s Grade: A-