Inside Llewyn Davis
The cat is the hat. At least, as far as Joel and Ethan Coen motifs are concerned. It seems nigh on impossible for the brothers to make a bad movie. Occasionally they disappoint slightly (Ladykillers) but usually they invite praise so effusive, it’s embarrassing. Inside Llewyn Davis falls into the category of one of their smaller, more offbeat, and idiosyncratic pictures, although such lines are always blurry (they rarely make costly, commercially calculated fare), and it comes up as one of their very best. Of course, their very best number about two thirds of their output. Such reliability ensures their pictures feel like special gifts, to be savoured and cherished when they arrive every couple of years.
The brothers clearly enjoy immersing themselves in period trappings (tellingly, they’ve expressed zero interest in making a science fiction movie; apart from anything else, where would they locate their reference points?), and the milieu of Davis is a new one; 1961 New York and the vibrant Greenwich Village folk scene. They aren’t slaves to authenticity, however (a number of anachronistic details skew later, but fit the overall mood or themes); it’s the evocation of the time rather than rigorous details that they’re after. I don’t know my Dave van Ronk, but the Coens loosely based Llewyn Davis on his posthumously published autobiography The Mayor of McDougal Street. They go their own way, of course, and this is all a frame to explore another of their misbegotten heroes, for whom nothing quite seems to work and who, either through blinkeredness or bloody-mindedness, is his own worst enemy. Several of their previous creations come to mind; the spiralling into chaos of A Serious Man, the self-involved playwright of Barton Fink. And informing the mood is a wonderfully immersive soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett, who performed similar duties on their most musical earlier picture O Brother, Where Art Thou?
So there are certain familiar beats here, and recognisable character quirks, but there’s never the remotest feeling they’re repeating themselves. And, for a movie that follows its lead’s unfocussed path, Davis never comes across as if it’s blowing in the wind, in search of a narrative. I’m very glad the Coens put the cat(s) in, but that’s the only justification for their concern that there was too little plot. It’s a typically bemusing comment from them anyway and, given their amusingly unforthcoming way with interviews when pressed to unburden themselves of thematic devices or subtexts, it was probably not intended completely seriously (perhaps the need not to expose subtexts partly explains why science fiction wouldn’t appeal; it’s difficult to get way from overt readings in that genre).
Is Davis really a loser, or is he the victim of the cruelty of the Fates? The Coens won’t be drawn on such matters. It’s quite evident that, like the also titular Barton Fink, Llewyn looks down on much of the creative output his peer group, be it friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan, though Jean isn’t so keen on Llewyn) or guileless soldier boy Troy Nelson (Stark Sands). Barton fetches up in Hollywood, where his attempts to reveal something beautiful fall on deaf ears. Barton is more hoisted by his own petard than Llewyn, perhaps, but both are equals at digging their own holes, unable to discern the dividing line between the purity of their art and entrenchedness of their egos. Davis is given more tangible pain (he has lost Mike, his former singing partner, to suicide) but is too self-involved too make good on the help others offer him. We see it with the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), whose cat he loses, and Jean, whose stream of vitriol seems to confirm that only ill can come to Davis (but also must also surely conceal genuine feeling; it’s unclear if she sleeps with Max Casella’s Pappi to secure Davis a gig, but there’s a strong implication that’s the case).
Davis isn’t a bad guy; he means well, but he can only really express kindness for Ulysses the cat, for Ulysses surrogate, and show for empathy towards the cat he later broadsides. The Coens will no doubt claim that the cat is just a cat, but it’s Llewyn’s genuine care (at the expense of a conversation with Jean over terminating her pregnancy) that invites an appreciation of his finer qualities, only otherwise exposed when he is playing. It’s in the latter moments, rehearsing old standards or not, that we see the genuine feeling, giving the lie to his claim that it’s only for the money.
He’s a contradictory character; of course, he is. And the Coens love to pile on their characters’ pain almost as much as Sam Raimi likes to beat on Bruce Campbell. But in this case, there’s a roundedness that ascends beyond stylistic indulgence and cute jokes (and I do love their formal stretching, and would never claim to be disappointed by their apparent indifference to deep and meaningful explorations of life and existence; for one thing, when they broach such areas they can’t do it entirely straight-faced, and I think I’d be disappointed if they did). Davis is so affecting because he’s hopelessly wayward, lost unto himself. Disaster compounds disaster, to the point where he looks to have given up on his dream; he’s resigned to getting back to the Merchant Navy and making some money. But that also seems to elude him. Compounding the cosmic joke, the last scene finds Llewyn sharing the bill with someone about to make it big. While fame awaits Bob Dylan, Davis props himself up, rueful and broken, in the club’s back alley.
The Coens ask us to accompany Davis in his inexorable, almost stoical downfall. It’s not a tragedy so much as an inevitability, of which Davis seems balefully resigned. He engages in the occasional temperamental outburst (at the club, leading to a beating) but he’s also the observer of his slow disintegration. Jean isn’t so far wrong, amid the invective, when she accuses him of willing himself to fail. But Isaac makes Davis likable, even at his worst when heckling a poor performer in a fit of pique. Although the Coens allow the lead to be buffeted as much as their average protagonist, there’s a sense of affection here too; they aren’t just mischief-making with him from a lofty remove.
It’s not made clear how much of Davis’ disposition results from the death of his partner Mike (who even managed to jump off the wrong bridge in his bid to escape from the world). The reason for his ex not telling him she was keeping the child is not expanded upon (nor is the time frame relating to this and Mike’s death), but it suggests Davis’ traits are not recent ones. He was no ray of sunshine even before his loss. But his loss clearly doesn’t help; his outburst at the Gorfeins is directly related to Mikey, and Jean may have slept with the bar owner out of pity for his going-nowhere solo arse.
Davis is heartfelt in his apologies, but the morbid content of his songs suggests an inability to escape his prison. Jean’s contention that everything he touches turns to shit even seems true of cats (his father actually does shit himself when Davis plays for him). Maybe he doesn’t want to succeed without his partner; but we’re never really privy to how much he valued their artistic collaboration. Only in his final show; the last performance we see features one of “their” songs, and that the performance is so heartfelt is surely crucial.
The twisted reflection of Davis’ artistic pose (he is a talented interpreter but not a creator of songs) is found in John Goodman’s vituperative jazz musician Roland Turner; he shows a level of disdain that makes Davis mocking acts or Jim’s flagrantly commercial instincts look meek and mild. Turner has only bile, spewing forth, expressing himself more than just words as, overdosing, he topples forward onto the floor of a men’s room like a huge floundering fish. The precise nature of Turner’s relationship with Garett Hedlund’s taciturn Beat poet (who is on the road) is left to the imagination, but this isn’t a world where everyone else is happier than the unlucky protagonist. They’re just more compromised and less itinerant.
The supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Even Timberlake, who was the only bum note in The Social Network. Ethan Phillips, best known as the ultra-irritating Neelix in Star Trek Voyager makes his Coens debut, but seems like ideal actor fodder for them. Max Cassella, Hedlund and Adam Driver (hilarious in his contribution to Please Mr Kennedy) are great, Mulligan as perfect as ever and it’s always a joy to see Abraham and Goodman.
T Bone Burnett’s musical choices are as persuasive as those in O Brother. And Isaac’s performances are tremendous (the climactic Fare the Well, especially). Most of the songs are reworked traditional pieces (as Llewyn says, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song“) but there’s an original comic highlight in Please Mr Kennedy that, if South Park can get an Oscar nom, really should have been recognised (it’s notable too how Davis, for all his tortured posturing, really enjoys jamming to such a flaky tune). Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is gorgeous; the faded poster suggests something verging on the monochrome, but there’s more to this than just the muted browns of times past. His is a vivid palate, albeit a wintery one, as you’d expect from the frequent colleague of Jean Pierre Jeunet and Tim Burton. The close-ups of Davis singing are as striking as the blizzards he drives through. The freeway has the sort of subtle menace last seen in Blood Simple. It’s a testament to Delbonnel that Roger Deakins isn’t missed.
And the cat. It’s best just to enjoy the Coens’ peccadillos, as attempts to root out the layers beneath are doomed. One might pick the obvious and note that Llewyn’s journey goes nowhere while Ulysses makes it home against incredible odds and to a rapturous welcome from his family (The Incredible Journey poster, two years too early, is a nice touch that I’m sure the tickled brothers couldn’t resist). They may have enjoyed working with cats as little as Oscar Isaac, but no one lets it show. The kitties irresistible and adorable, from Ulysses’ bewildered gaze out of a subway train window, as stations rush by, to the poor wounded moggy dragging itself into roadside shrub to expire after the distraught Llewyn has hit him.
Does Llewyn make it aboard the ship? Who knows; what is essential is that he is getting out just as Dylan is about to make it big. The moment where Davis attempts to secrete his box of unsold records under a table, only to find Al Cody’s box of unsold records already there might suggest that Davis isn’t making the wrong choice; it isn’t just his temperament that is stalling greater recognition.
I doubt the Coens care too much that Inside Llewyn Davis only received a sliver of Oscar attention. They’re probably wryly amused whatever happens, as that’s their thing. Noms did nothing for A Serious Man’s fortunes, although the shut out this time seems almost arbitrary. I’d like to say this is their best film in years, but that would only make it their best film since A Serious Man, and before that No Country for Old Men. Certainly though, in Inside Llewyn Davis they have created one of their greatest lead characters and a picture that can be embraced as much for its superb (and funny, and tragic) use of music as their trademark mordant wit and melancholic foreboding. Shit happens to Llewyn Davis, but the universe is unforthcoming as to exactly why; grief, self-indulgence, haplessness? Or all of those things. Such inscrutability is the Coen brothers all over.