Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
The new Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, which opens across the country today after a two-week limited run in New York and Los Angeles, takes us on a crazy ride through the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961, just before the arrival and ascent of the young Bob Dylan. The film, as has been widely reported, is loosely based on the life of folk legend Dave Van Ronk, which lends it a gloss of historic verisimilitude. But to spend much time analyzing that aspect of the story is to miss the point of it. As in all of the Coens’ movies, the cinematic space – its time, place, genre – is merely set dressing for the overarching theme of their entire œuvre: the miserable odyssey of talented, but flawed, protagonists doomed to never quite rise to their own potential.
In films as diverse as Raising Arizona, Barton Fink (my personal favorite), Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, A Serious Man and many more, the Coens explore, through comedies, quasi-musicals, thrillers or Westerns, the trajectory of the failed hero. Often the results are darkly funny (Fargo); sometimes they are tragic (No Country for Old Men). The beauty of Inside Llewyn Davis is that it is both. Like its hero, it is far from perfect, however. The Coens, masters of the picaresque, have a tendency to wax episodic – spending too much time on individual set pieces rather than a cohesive whole – and while this movie is far more tightly structured than The Big Lebowski, it does not quite reach the brilliantly plotted heights of either Barton Fink or Fargo. It won’t be my own top film of 2013, but it’s still very good.
We first meet Llewyn (not to be confused with my own middle name, Llewellyn) Davis (an excellent Oscar Isaac) – a somewhat-known folk singer – as he’s singing the traditional ballad “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in front of a rapt audience, alone on stage with his guitar and beautiful voice. This is one of three such solo performances by Isaac, and each is, on its own, reason enough to see the film (as in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, musician T Bone Burnett is the music supervisor here, and the resultant soundtrack is a must-have). We quickly learn that Davis wasn’t always a solo act: his late singing partner recently killed himself. Never a hit when part of a duo, Davis is really struggling now, and his prickly personality is no help. Soon after getting off stage, Davis is informed by the club owner that a “friend” wishes to see him in the back alley. So Davis steps outside, where he receives a good and proper beating. Why? We’ll find out eventually (the script is circular), but it turns out that this an apt metaphor for how life treats him, over and over; it’s his own personal Groundhog Day.
Llewyn – who, it turns out, is homeless – next wakes up in the apartment of the Gorfeins, Columbia University professors who are part of a dwindling group of people willing to let Davis sleep over. They’re generous, as Davis gets an actual bed with them; with others he sometimes ends up on the floor. Davis promptly repays them by accidentally letting their cat escape – a cat, we discover, whose name is Ulysses – and this unintentional act of irresponsibility becomes the second part of the metaphor. Life may treat Davis badly, but he brings the worst on himself.
And so we follow Llewyn Davis as he descends into an underworld partly of his own making, struggling to fight his way out of despair and escape the clutches of oblivion. Along the way, we meet a colorful cast of characters that include Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, and F. Murray Abraham, all of whom, like Isaac, are in fine fettle and make their individual scenes sparkle with life. Unfortunately, by the time we return to that opening scene and learn why Davis is deserving of that particular beating, we’re as exhausted and exasperated by him as are his friends. He really does bring misery on himself, in spite of his talents. If not this time, then perhaps later, somewhere, someone was bound to thrash him.
And therein lies the rub, at least for me. When the movie ends, Davis has gone from bad to worse, yet seemingly learned nothing from it. It is a sad and sour experience, lovingly crafted with the Coens’ usual meticulous attention to detail, that leaves us as miserable as is the protagonist. That would be fine – redemption can be trite – if there were more to the story than just a catalog of suffering (something the Coens already tackled in their Job-like A Serious Man). Instead, misery is the end game. In a sense, the Coens here do to us what Davis does to his friends: give us hope that there’s a larger purpose to the enterprise, but then don’t quite rise to the potential of the material. There is great beauty on the way down, however – more than in most films – and so I still give the film a strong, if qualified, recommendation.