Inside Llewyn Davis and why it's almost always a bad idea to write about movies. Copious unmarked spoilers.
I left Inside Llewyn Davis thinking that I understood it completely, and that’s never a good sign. Even when good filmmakers are making a straightforward film — and the Coen Brothers have established several times over that they’re the best filmmakers working today — a simple one- or two-sentence synopsis isn’t going to cover everything that’s packed inside.
Actually, to be completely honest, I left Inside Llewyn Davis excited that the Coens had included such a fantastic closing flourish in an otherwise straightforward film. A time loop! What a bold way to reinforce the idea of characters unaware that they’re stuck in a cyclical existence of their own creation! Minor details changing, but no real progression because they make mistakes and refuse to learn from them. Stuck in a kind of Purgatory while singing about Galilee!
By the time I’d made it home from the theater, I’d already figured out that what my sci-fi-addled brain had interpreted as “Purgatorial Time Loop” was better explained by a term cinema studies experts call “editing.” (And again: Roderick Jaynes is an outstanding editor; I hope the Coens never stop working with him). In this review with an unforgivable title, Alonso Duralde points out that the film uses a circular structure common to folk songs (including the song that opens and closes the film). Was the structure of the story a clever stylistic flourish, or the final piece that makes sense of the entire thing? Or both? Or neither?
In my defense, part of the reason I jumped so quickly on the literal “purgatory” idea was that I’d spent the entire movie waiting for something fantastic to happen. I went in with the preconceived notion “I’m here to see a Coen Brothers movie” instead of “I’m here to see a movie,” so I expected at any moment, a character would go nuts and beat someone to death with a fireplace poker, or the walls would burst into flame, or a tornado would sweep through the East Village.
Really, though, if I hadn’t gone in expecting A Film By Joel and Ethan Coen, I would’ve made it at least halfway through the movie before realizing it was one of theirs. It’s oddly understated throughout. Sure, the dialogue is unmistakable, as are the shots of the Gorfeins’ house guests, and the color grading that’s not subtle and yet doesn’t draw attention to itself, making all of Greenwich Village look Kind of Blue. But once John Goodman’s character shows up, it’s clear; he really couldn’t exist anywhere else. After that, there’s more familiar stuff: looking through the windshield while driving along a featureless highway; medium shots of working people behind desks or counters, not putting up with any of the main characters’ frustration with bureaucracy; people generally not responding to conversations the way they’re supposed to.
At that point, I was eager to come up with a perfect summation: oh right, I get this. It’s about 25% A Serious Man with about 75% Barton Fink, but the more subtle and less overtly comedic versions. In the Coen Brothers’ consistently populist universe, self-importance is the one unforgivable flaw. Llewyn’s constant accusations of being “careerist,” and his disdain for other musicians, mark him as a pretentious hypocrite. He’s trapped in a cyclic purgatory of his own making. Boom. Film Analysis. B+.
Who Wrote This?
Part of the “problem” is Oscar Isaac’s flawless performance as Llewyn Davis. It never feels like a performance. Instead, he’s a real person who’s somehow found himself trapped inside a Coen Brothers movie. One of the many parts of the Coens’ genius is that they somehow get performances that are (almost) always pitch-perfect in tone. They can have individual characters going over-the-top or completely straight — sometimes even in the same scene! — and even if it’s going against the tone of the rest of the film, it somehow works. It’s how they can take gangster lingo as artificial and unnatural as Shakespeare and make it all seem as if that’s the way people really talked back then.
But even the most straightforward performance still always feels like a performance. In No Country for Old Men, Tommy Lee Jones’s impossibly dour Old Man, and Kelly Macdonald’s Innocent, are both played completely straight, but have essential scenes where they’re essentially speaking in poetry. Even in Inside Llewyn Davis, Carey Mulligan’s (excellent) naturalistic performance is still clearly — and I believe intentionally — someone speaking lines that have been written.
Llewyn Davis, though, isn’t having any of it. Everyone else is doing the things that people do in Coen Brothers movies: going off on transparently irrational, angry tirades; un-self-consciously expressing a desire or a love of something corny; saying something nonsensical as if it were profound; exposing themselves as unrepentantly sexist, racist, or otherwise horrible; or just staring awkwardly. But instead of playing along, Davis doesn’t engage, responding instead with a disbelieving stare, or a look of resigned disbelief, or a sneering “Seriously?” The effect isn’t like that of an everyman, or even a fish out of water, but is more like the intolerable uncomfortableness of watching Raising Arizona with someone who doesn’t think it’s funny.
I started to wonder whether the Coens had finally made the movie that people have spent decades accusing them of making: a cold, arch, cynical exercise in technical expertise with no soul. Not celebrating its quirky-but-earnest characters, but mocking and belittling them as hypocrites or vapid poseurs. And the only one who could see through it all was kind of an asshole himself.
Inside Llewyn Davis
But then, there’s the scene that’s so important they included it twice. At the beginning of the movie, it’s a cruel universe beating down on a hapless singer right after he’s given an earnest performance of a song saying how weary he is. At the end of the movie, it’s Llewyn’s comeuppance. It’s not cruel fate; we’ve seen exactly what he did to bring it on himself.
The movie’s full of scenes of Llewyn getting beaten down, some entirely deserved and some not. The funniest is when Mrs. Gorfein holds up a cat and shouts accusatorially, “Where are his testicles, Llewyn?” as if blaming Llewyn not for losing the cat, but the fact that the cat’s a female.
Earlier, there was another scene that seemed at first like just another case of the Coens goofing off, the recording session for Jim’s novelty record. On the surface, it would seem that Jim’s character is basically nothing more than the central joke of A Mighty Wind: goofing on the vapid earnestness of all the early 60s sweater-wearing folk singers. The character of Al Cody’s there making goofy vocalizations for a bit of unexplained weirdness. Llewyn’s desperate for the money but completely disdainful of the song, awkwardly insulting the shallow man who’d done him a favor.
Over the course of the recording, though, he starts to enjoy it. It’s an unabashedly stupid song, but it’s fun. Jim’s not an idiot; he knows what he’s doing. Al Cody isn’t just some weird goof, but a professional just trying to make a buck like anybody else. And it’s not some cruel twist of fate that screws Llewyn out of the royalties for the record; it’s his own impatience. And in terms of dramatic justice, his own arrogance.
There is a message about the tension between art and commerce in Inside Llewyn Davis, but it’s absolutely not applauding Llewyn for his artistic integrity. Like Barton Fink, Llewyn Davis is a man who believes in himself as an artist, who has the misfortune of having his fate determined by two men who are ardent populists. (I also got the sense that now, Barton Fink seems as if it screams and points at things the Coens can now just say confidently and quietly).
For that matter, the movie doesn’t make Bud Grossman out to be a villain, either: he doesn’t say that Llewyn is bad at what he does (because he clearly isn’t), but gives the honest assessment that he doesn’t see any money in it. And then gives Llewyn some practical advice. Llewyn, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate to make blanket dismissals about any of the other musicians he comes into contact with, from the Army man he accuses of being a robot, to the Irish singers about whom the best he has to say is “I like the sweaters.”
By the end of the movie, that arrogance is no longer just figuratively getting him beaten down, but literally. He couldn’t take his anger out on the people who deserve it; he’s far too dependent on the club owner, and even though Jean’s been revealed to be every bit as sexually manipulative as she’d accused Llewyn of being, it was at least partly for his benefit. So he took it out on an innocent, a woman who seemed to have walked onto the stage directly from a recording on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. (Which as it turns out, isn’t that far from the truth). Llewyn becomes the caricature of the self-important, pompous artist that so many reviewers have accused the Coens of being: he doesn’t really care about the music or what it means to anyone. He just wants to make fun of the yokels.
The attacker throws his words back at him: “That’s what you do. You open your mouth.” We’ve seen plenty of cases where he says completely the wrong thing, makes the wrong decision, lashes out at people seemingly out of nowhere. He’s not completely unsympathetic; we get plenty of hints at what’s causing him to lash out — Jean says, in the middle of an argument, “I miss Mike,” and you wonder whether she’s actually saying, “I miss when we were happy.” We know that Llewyn’s obviously been hit hard by his partner’s suicide, but we can’t really see how he feels about it. We can’t ever really see anything about him other than anger, frustration, arrogance, and weariness.
Except when he’s singing. Then, you can see his passion for it, his enthusiasm when it’s fun, his weariness which usually displays itself as cynicism. His solo album’s titled Inside Llewyn Davis, and you get the sense that it’s the only record of what’s actually going on inside Llewyn Davis. The movie functions more like a musical than O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where the songs were mostly just interludes; here, the songs are actually establishing and developing character. It’s only during the songs that you get a sense of what he’s actually feeling.
But he doesn’t get it. He’s both attached to it as art and dismissive of it as commerce. He makes a claim about “keeping up the mystique,” seemingly unaware that he’s abrasive and impenetrable except when he’s singing. And when his attacker rides off in a cab, leaving the “cesspool” of New York behind, Llewyn’s last words to him are au revoir, “until I see you again.” Meaning he’s going to keep making the same mistakes and going through the same cycle of events over and over again.
Inside Inside Llewyn Davis
But Jordan Hoffman’s review is more sympathetic. He says that the movie is about the grieving process, and sees Llewyn Davis as a tragic figure, condemned to mediocrity and cursed with the awareness of it. Stephanie Zacharek says, bafflingly, that this is the “warmest picture [the Coens] have ever made” and that they “seem to love” Llewyn. At NPR, Ian Buckwalter splits the difference, saying that it’s a “repetitive loop of failure, baiting us with hope before quashing it with quiet desperation again and again,” but that the Coens “never quite write off Llewyn completely, even if he does himself.”
Hoffman’s also a little more optimistic: he cleverly suggests that Bob Dylan isn’t included just as a final example of Llewyn just missing out on success, fated to be nothing more than a footnote in the history of folk music. Instead, he’s meant to represent the change that took place in music as the novelty songs and sweater-wearing groups faded out of popularity and the heartfelt singer-songwriters took over. “Change is coming in the music scene… if Davis can just hold out a little longer.”
I don’t think any of the different interpretations are wrong. The only flat-out wrong interpretation would be that the Coens are being arch. That there’s “a weird sort of impersonality or cold-bloodedness [at] the film’s core. You watch it as the Greek gods must have watched puny humanity from their perch on Olympus.” Or to write it off as a black comedy or just another iteration of A Mighty Wind, “the cool, smirky pessimism of the Coens versus the guileless hope of the pre-Dylan folk scene.” (Or, I guess, you could just miss the point entirely).
It’d also be a mistake to write it off as “slight” or “a minor work”, since almost every scene is dense with possible interpretations; that’s why there are so many interpretations.
Reviewers make it sound as if the Coens are always playing tricks on the audience, but they’re actually playing tricks on reviewers. You get the sense that they’re perpetually frustrated by attempts to turn subtext into text. Let the movie speak for itself; if we could sum up everything we want to say with a film review, we would’ve written a film review instead of cramming it all into a movie.
And when you see painfully awkward and clumsy attempts to explain a film’s symbolism, you can understand the complaint. (I’ve seen some speculation that Franco is trolling everybody with that post, a kind of performance art to goad the cinema studies types into apoplexy and make a larger comment about picking artistic works apart. Whether it’s earnest or not, it’s so poorly done either way that I don’t care). Even though you want to point out that Tommy’s hat in Miller’s Crossing is so clearly and obviously a symbol of his sense of control because it’s a near-perfect visual metaphor that’s never too on-the-nose… you can understand why they’d want to insist “it’s just a hat.”
But then there’s the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis. They even named it Ulysses; are they just screwing with us now? And a lead character who always says the wrong thing but can only express himself in song? Am I just completely missing the point when I say that the cat represents not Llewyn, but the stability, responsibility, and domesticity that he keeps losing (or rejecting outright)?
(And by the way: the other wrong interpretation is that John Goodman’s character is out of place or too broad for the rest of the movie. He’s obviously the representation of the end of the “tortured artist” path, twisted into nothing more than affectation and arrogance, coming to the pathetic but unsympathetic end of passing out in a bathroom stall and being abandoned on a highway).
It’s entirely possible that I am completely missing the point by trying to pick the movies apart like a puzzle to be solved, instead of just letting them breathe and speak (and sing) for themselves. But then again, if I didn’t try to figure out all the different layers of meaning in a film, I might find myself doing something awkward like missing the point of a filmmaker’s entire body of work, or dismissing a film as fascinating as Inside Llewyn Davis as nothing more than a “black comedy.”