Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Some spoilers ahead.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a frustrating movie. It’s difficult to know how to approach it. Going in, you either know something about the folk music scene of NYC in the early 1960’s, or you don’t—and either way seems to handicap a viewer looking to make sense out of the film. Those who have a familiarity with the subject will be running through their head for facts, looking for characters who correspond to real people, wondering ‘Will Dylan be in this?’ They will be distracted, and in the end, it will not be a very rewarding experience. On the other hand, those who go in blind will probably get lazy and blame their misunderstanding of the film on their ignorance of the subject, thinking it to be full of inside jokes.
If you can somehow make it past that built-in obstacle course, you’ll be able to view the film for what it is—another Coen Brothers film about a cosmic circle. A man, standing still (a la Ray from Blood Simple, H.I. McDunnough from Raising Arizona, Jerry Lundegaard from Fargo, Barton Fink, The Dude) while at the same time, going on an adventure (a la Tom Regan from Miller’s Crossing, Rooster Cogburn from True Grit, Llewelyn Moss—practically sharing the first name of our main character—from No Country For Old Men, Ulysses Everett McGill from O Brother, Where Art Thou?—literally sharing the first name as our other main character, a cat).
Llewyn Davis is a musician trapped on a merry-go-round, living through a cold New York winter with a manager who doesn’t give him the time of day, gigs that don’t pay, no winter coat, and no place to live. He’s also recently acquired a cat that accidentally escaped his friend Gorfein’s apartment on his watch. He spends some time with a couple (played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), but he doesn’t seem to particularly like them. In fact, he seems like an all-around bad person—largely as a result of how other people treat him, coupled by his own egomania. There is certainly no doubt he’s a scoundrel when we find out about his sexual habits, and we see the universe line up to give him his deserved retribution—or is it forgiveness? Everything about the film is left with a question mark at the end, reducing it all to a retribution/forgiveness dialectical conundrum.
Death haunts Llewyn Davis—in fact, it dogs him at every turn. But the ‘death’ is also a resurrection. The film opens with him playing to an enraptured crowd—and then promptly getting his ass beat. But are we at the beginning or the end? His singing partner has died, but is resurrected several times through record sleeves and old tunes they used to sing together (such as ‘Fare Thee Well’); an abortion that was supposed to have taken place two years prior is revealed to have never happened; a man crashes through a bathroom stall door due to a heroin overdose—but he’ll be alright; the cat is dead—but wait, it’s alive. This cosmic reckoning of Llewyn appears to be inescapable, but is also not always such a bad thing. He sleeps with another man’s wife. He reduces Gorfein’s wife to tears. When he meets her doppelganger in a bar, he ridicules her (right after finding out he wasn’t the only person his friend’s wife was sleeping with), which leads him to get his ass kicked by the doppelganger’s angry husband—a shadowy representation of all husbandry in the film. Llewyn Davis certainly has it coming, but you get the feeling this will all smarten him up a little bit.
I mentioned Bob Dylan earlier, and his presence haunts the film like a ghost. Again, a dialectic presents itself—what would the cultural explosion that is Bob Dylan mean to Llewyn Davis? What would it do to him? Would it cause him to be obsolete? Dylan is someone more talented, more charismatic, more funny, more strange, more interesting—so why would we need Llewyn Davis? Or, would Dylan’s popularity be such that it creates a vacuum which sucks up those around him, leaving the world curious and thirsty for more Village folk singers, of which Llewyn would certainly fit the bill? Would that be a good thing for him? In the cafe, he lashes out at Carey Mulligan, calling her a ‘careerist’. Yet, a few scenes later, he yells at his Gorfein’s wife after reminding him of his late singing partner and tells her “This is how I make a living”. Like most important lines in a Coen Brothers movie, this one is repeated later on.
Not all of Coen Brothers’ protagonists are punished mercilessly—just most of them. One only has to remember Ed Crane, the barber of The Man Who Wasn’t There, who stepped out of his routine for one minute and made one mistake—the mistake of ambition beyond that of being a barber. This ambition led to the crime of blackmail, which led to murder. His life, along with the lives of everyone he knows, spiraled out of control, and he was punished repeatedly for it. But we can also think about H.I McDunnough, or Norville Barnes of The Hudsucker Proxy—characters who, in particular, represent the forgiving aspect of the Coens. It is that side of the circle that Llewyn exists on—but he is on the outside, looking in.