It’s been three years since the Coen Brothers gave us True Grit and their absence is hard-felt around casa ‘strom, so we headed out to see Inside Llewyn Davis on Christmas weekend. The Flower tagged along.
It won’t come as a shock that I really, really liked it, I don’t think. The Boy also liked it, though less than I, and The Flower, I think, less than either of us. (She didn’t seem bored, however.)
Of course, that tells you nothing: The only Coen movie I didn’t like right off the bat was The Man Who Wasn’t There and I’ll probably give that another look soon. If I were to describe this in terms of their oeuvre, I’d put it as Barton Fink meets The Serious Man Who Wasn’t There.
Our “hero” is the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, Drive) who has trouble connecting with the masses (much like Barton, except it doesn’t seem to be something he aspires to) and who also has trouble connecting cause-and-effect. But unlike Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik, for whom cause-and-effect is legitimately mysterious, Llewyn’s life is a series of causes he sets into motion without ever seeing or following through on the effects of.
It’s 1961 Greenwich Village, the nascent folk music scene, and Llewyn and his cohorts hang out at a coffee house singing traditional music for a share of “the hat” that gets passed around at the end of the show.
But Llewyn’s kind of a loser: His agent doesn’t care about him, his album’s been remaindered, he’s lost the other member of his duo, and he’s reduced to crashing on people’s couches for the length of stay they can tolerate him for.
His ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan, who was also in Drive and An Education) is married to his more likable and successful friend, Jim (Justin Timberlake, doing a great job as always), and, oh, by-the-way may be pregnant by Llewyn. She’s pissed at him in the way only a woman in that situation can be.
Llewyn is such a champ he tries to borrow money for her abortion from Jim. He’s adored by the Gorefeins, college professors on the Upper West Side (Ethan Philips of “Star Trek: Voyager” and Robin Bartlett of “American Horror Story”) even as he has a nagging feeling of being a kind of pet or novelty.
But Llewyn just doesn’t connect. It’s not just a feature of his music, it’s who he is, most notably evinced in a scene where he plays for his vacant father.
This isn’t O Brother, Where Art Thou. Davis is less likable than Gopnik, though perhaps more likable than Man Who Wasn’t There’s Ed Crane, but interesting to view in contrast with those two. Crane did nothing, never seemed to care to do anything. Gopnik wants to do the right thing but has no idea what that is.
The universe virtually begs Llewyn to take responsibility for anything. It says “Here’s your ticket to fortune” and he says “I’ll take cash up front”. It says “Here’s a chance for you to continue in music” he says “I’ll become a merchant marine”. It says “Maybe you should look up that old girlfriend” and he says “Yeah…but maybe I shouldn’t.” It says “Are you sure you know what you’re doing? You’ve gotten everything wrong up till now.” He says “Yeah, I got this.”
At one point he encounters a beat poet chauffeuring an old, fat man around (Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman respectively). When it would become inconvenient, he abandons them to their fate. We never know what happens to them.
And so this is a movie full of loose ends. Nothing but loose ends, really.
There’s a cat. I sort of reacted badly to the cat at first, thinking it was a little too on-the-nose as a metaphor for Llewyn’s ambitions. Through a bit of recklessness he ends up in charge of the cat, which he carries around, then loses, then finds, then maybe loses and finds or possibly kills or…
You get the idea. It actually works less as a metaphor than as a living example of Llewyn’s odd relationship with cause-and-effect and care-and-neglect.
As a movie, there are some bold choices which are bound to alienate some folk. For example, a great many songs are played in full, and consist of the person playing and the audience watching. Where the Coens typically have smart dialogue and great cinematography, this movie rests on performances and reactions of people to performances.
In not one but two cases, the audience is one man, and they’re completely flat—or I think they are. I thought maybe they were reacting, but I’m not sure if that was me reacting to Llewyn wanting a reaction or if they actually did change.
It’s definitely a watch-again for me. But that’s going to be off-putting to some, especially if they don’t care for the music.
How is the music? Well, again, this ain’t O, Brother. I would describe it as aggressively anodyne. Like Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, only without parody. It’s pretty unexciting, as such music is. The musicianship is there but it’s not clear what it’s in service of.
You could really see why someone like Bob Dylan could go in and shake things up. (The Old Man always maintained that he would’ve been ignored at any other point in time, musically.)
Now, this is as much my music as anything: I love folk and harmonies and nice-sounding things. But it was pretty unengaging, except for the last performance Llewyn makes of the movie’s central song “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”.
His other performances are nice but they pale in comparison to the version of that song he recorded with his absent partner, which is played in montage. This is also the point, maybe even deeper than it seems:
Sure as the birds flying above
Life ain’t worth livin’
Without the one you love
You could view the movie from the lens of a man who’s lost his partner and now drifts aimlessly. I don’t know if that’s right. I’d have to watch it again.
There are some other traditional songs, though the only one I recognized was “Green Green Rocky Road”. The most fun piece is a made-up novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” about not wanting to be shot into space. In a lot of ways, though, it feels like the vitality has gone out of the old songs, or at least the singers.
Thematically appropriate but not necessarily gonna make you run out and buy the CD.
On the other hand, I’m not anyone’s “go to” guy for popular music interests.
The Coens used to be criticized pretty routinely for being “cold”. It’s not necessarily an unfair cop. A lot of movies rely heavily on the “designated hero” trope, encouraging the audience to feel certain ways about their characters based not on what they do, but how they’re presented, essentially.
High Noon is like this. Gary Cooper’s just the good guy, and the Bad Guys are the Bad Guys, and that’s the movie’s set up, which is never really justified. Although it’s done satirically, more than one web essay has been written on the Empire being the good guys in Star Wars because it relies heavily on those old Western tropes, and we root for the underdog, and so on.
This is a kind of sentimentalism, and I’d I would say that the Coens avoid it like an excessively abused metaphor. They present their movie as “Here’s what these people say and do, feel about it how you will.” That can seem cold, particularly as there are few angels in Coen movies. Most everyone can be a jerk.
In this film, there’s a scene shown twice. And in the first you might think the beating put on poor Llewyn was undeserved. I didn’t, actually, but the second time they show how he set this into action, and they do so with complete unsentimentality. You’ve been with a guy through one of the worst weeks of his life, and yet what he does is so awful—well, you’re challenged to sympathize with the “hero”.
I liked it, a lot, as I said. And the more I think about it. But it’s definitely not for everyone.