The protagonist in a Coen brothers’ film is usually marked for failure. They also sometimes tend to be aware of this destiny and end up engaging in elliptical quests. The protagonists in Coen brothers’ films are thus tragic figures. They tend to be gathered under the umbrella of self-imposed isolation and the action, so to speak, occurs when the outer world decides to intrude on this bubble (eg. The Dude, Barton Fink, Larry Gopnik). Llewyn Davis, (it is a Welsh name) is another evolutionary successor to these illustrious gents. A folk singer trying to strike it big in early 60s Greenwich Village, Llewyn is alone. He is a nomad even, who may or may not want to be one. Circumstance, that fell beast, forces this state on him. He is just on the point of breaking in to the inner circle. He can feel it.
If you have ever read a review of a Coen brothers film, you may have read about how the brothers mock their own creations. I don’t know how true this is. I personally love their body of work and I think it is the most consistent world view presented in a medium. That said, they do tend to behave as a detached Creator conscious of his creations would (should?). Inside Llewyn Davis, however, seems to me a spiritual successor to the intensely personal ‘A Serious Man’. Both films include warm, handle-with-care protagonists on personal quests in largely uncaring, unsympathetic worlds. The film opens with Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) in 1961’s Gaslight Café. A halo frames his bearded face and Llewyn begins to sing. “Amy, Oh Amy” Wait, why is he singing about Amy? Who’s Amy? “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” Yes, that makes some sense. Mournful, beautiful notes. Llewyn can sing. The song ends, the crowd applauds, Llewyn leaves to meet a friend backstage. A happy protagonist? Well, not for long.
When I heard the film was about the kind of time and place that seemed ideal for spawning myths, I automatically assumed Llewyn would be a bit like O Brother’s Ulysses Everett McGill—a trickster hero. I watched the film trying to anticipate the point where the film would turn brilliantly on its heels and transform into some kind of magical experience. The film however refuses to (at least not directly) deal with even a tiny bit of magic. Is this what a real period film feels like? Leeched of artistic tone and creative flavour to represent (surprise, surprise) reality? To be honest, I have no clue about historical accuracy and it is not something that I care about. But when someone says a Coen brothers’ film set in 60s America, I expect some form of radical intellectual hijinks. I expect rebels and thinkers and real men and real talent sprouting from every neglected brick wall. I expect a disgusting, colorful orgy of creative juices that would shame my own colorless existence. Instead what we have here is more of the same colorlessness. A story of normal struggle that reads contrary to today’s “everyone is born special” landscape.
Llewyn walks alone, quite literally, from gig to gig. He sleeps on the floors and couches of friends. He had a musical partner, Mike, who jumped off the wrong bridge. (Pop quiz: Name a Coen brothers’ movie that has a naturally stable central partnership that lasts) Llewyn is the man against the world (and against the German nihilists, businesses, wives, relatives, forces of nature, legendary killers, government agencies by extension). For Llewyn the world includes Jean (Carey Mulligan, lovely), an angry ex-girlfriend he’s gotten pregnant who wants him to pay for an abortion; Jim (Justin Timberlake, tolerably bearded), her singer-husband; Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), a folk singer-soldier who already is looking at success; Al Cody (Adam Driver, lanky), a friend of Jim’s who accompanies Jim and Llewyn while recording the funny guaranteed-to-succeed Please Mr. Kennedy; the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Barrett), a couple of academics who are genuine Llewyn Davis fans and their cat.
The cat is a crucial character (or is it just the Coens doing that mocking thing again?). The cat (several similar ones were used for filming) ends up traveling with Llewyn and turning possibly into a sort of symbol for Llewyn himself (Llewyn is Welsh for lion). The cat (whose name is a lovely, clever “typical Coen joke” that you must find out for yourself) and the troubadour have much in common. They always seem to be escaping from each other’s grasp. When Llewyn calls Professor Gorfein’s receptionist to inform him about the cat, she mishears his message. “Llewyn is the cat”, she intones. He loses the cat then finds it. Then it turns out it isn’t even the same cat. Questions of identity plague Llewyn. To use a cliche, he needs to find himself. Yes, I thought to myself, this is it. This is when he will shed the yoke of his own burden and march to glory. But Llewyn is a jerk to put it mildly. His sister, model suburbanite, and his father, almost dead, are the kind of living that scares Llewyn. He wants success (maybe just validation) but he doesn’t want it easy. He makes fun of Jean for wanting family life. During the gig that Jim got him, he mocks Jim without realizing it. He mocks a performing band for having nice sweaters. He mocks a poor old lady. He has no money but he isn’t ready to adjust. He takes the wrong cat back to the Gorfeins and ends up fighting with them.
True to the Coen brothers’ name, Inside Llewyn Davis rambles. It takes random turns and one of the most prominent is the road trip. Coen brothers’ totem John Goodman as a venom spewing, heroin loving gentleman, and mystery man no.1, a vaguely dangerous enigmatic Beat poet join Llewyn. At one point, Llewyn and the cat look at the driver in an eerily simultaneous way. This was the part where I was sure of a catalyst that will galvanize our protagonist into decisive action. And again I was surprised as the trip was only a slightly surreal car ride. The ride is eventful, yes, but it has nothing to offer Llewyn whose destination is rejection with a liberal dose of irony. The ride back is equally, if not more, hellish. Ice and darkness lead a sleepy Llewyn to maim an animal (A cat? Some metaphorical aspect of Llewyn?).
All self-defeating roads lead home and Oscar Isaac, in a star-making performance, never asks for mercy. All his actions, quirks and gestures seem to be destined for failure. I would even argue that he doesn’t possibly want to succeed because after basking in the tragic light of failure for so long any form of success is tinged with compromise in his eyes. When faced with a chance to impress, he chooses a song that he has no hope of pulling off. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who tries to fill Roger Deakins’ freakishly large boots, helps the director(s) visualize Llewyn’s situation (note the cramped hallways and the surreal doors). T. Bone Burnett along with Marcus Mumford creates an aural experience that is evocative and representative. Music has always been crucial to the Coen brothers’ and yet again (think O Brother Where Art Thou?) the soundtrack is a character itself.
In a way, the film ends the way it begins. Time runs in circles and timing is often key. The Coens show us another solitary man who takes the stage right after Llewyn. A man who we know is destined for greatness. You can’t help but feel sorry for him. Will he find the right note or will he just fade away? What is the price of failure for an insider? Culture and History both tend to be written by winners. Success becomes emblematic and Failure is relegated to the proverbial abyss of daily life.
In a conversation in the film, Llewyn’s sister says, “Exist? Is that what we do outside of show business? It’s not so bad.” Llewyn however knows that exist is that which some inside the show business must do too. It is this that Llewyn dreads and ultimately comes to terms with.
The cat’s name, in this context is a deft touch (think Joycean) and it almost perfectly embodies this problem of identity. After all, the cat and Llewyn both seem to be under the power of their own name at all times. And as the movie nears conclusion, Llewyn, who now knows the name of the cat, behaves differently. As if the knowledge has helped him overcome something internally. He seems to have shed his martyr face and accepted something. I know quiet resignation when I see it.
Watch the official trailer, here: