Directed by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Starring: Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis), Carey Mulligan (Jean), Justin Timberlake (Jim), Ethan Phillips (Mitch Gorfein), Robin Bartlett (Lillian Gorfein), Max Casella (Pappi Corsicato), Jerry Grayson (Mel Novikoff), Jeanine Serralles (Joy), Adam Driver (Al Cody), Stark Sands (Troy Nelson), John Goodman (Roland Turner), Garrett Hedlund (Johnny Five), Alex Karpovsky (Marty Green), Helen Hong (Janet Fung), Bradley Mott (Joe Flom), F. Murray Abraham (Bud Grossman), Nancy Blake (Elizabeth Hobby), Stephen Payne (Mr. Hobby), Stan Carp (Hugh Davis).
Llewyn Davis cannot stop himself. He is a talented folk singer in 1961 New York, but his career is not going well. Neither of his albums – the one he recorded with his old partner Mike who has since thrown himself off the George Washington Bridge and his solo album have sold at all. He cannot get a gig playing anywhere except at the Gaslight – where the performers pass the hat at the end of their set to be paid. He sleeps on the couch of whoever is willing to put him up for the night. Like any young, struggling musician, success is a longshot. But Llewyn makes it even harder for himself. He is almost instantly dismissive of everyone he meets. Sitting in the Gaslight one evening watching an earnest performance by Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), Llewyn wonders aloud if he has “higher function”. When his friends Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake) join Troy on stage, for a Peter, Paul & Mary style rendition of 500 Miles, Llewyn looks around the Gaslight in disbelief as the audience starts to sing along. This is what these idiots want to hear you can practically hear Llewyn asking himself in his head. We’ve already seen, in the film opening scene, Llewyn sing a haunting rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, so we know he has talent. But talent isn’t always enough to make it in show business – and Llewyn does little to help himself.
As played by Oscar Isaac, Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen brothers most fascinating creations. Loosely based on David Van Ronk – a legend to many in the folk scene, unheard of by most others – Llewyn is a character that refuses to compromise what he sees as his artistic integrity. We often admire that quality – there have been many movies made about it, and we romanticize the true life stories of artists who stuck to their guns and won. But for every one of them who made, there are 1,000 Llewyn Davis’ – those who stick to their guns, and lose. Llewyn looks down on those around him – not just other folk singers, like Jean and Jim who he views as “careerist”. A middle class professor and his wife, the Gorfeins (who, for the record, I see no evidence to suggest they are Mike’s parents), welcome Llewyn into their home, and introduce them to their friends, and he instantly mocks them – and then loses their cat. He is a man who depends on the kindness of others for a place to stay, but provides no kindness back. When he’s onstage, he can make beautiful music, but he’s rather hopeless when he’s not on stage. He is depressed – about his career failings, about the suicide of his partner, about the state of his father, etc. He pours that pain into his music – which makes it so memorable – but also makes him miserable.
The movie has a definite three act structure – the first being Llewyn time in New York, when he’s still hustling, still trying to make it – while at the same time dealing with Jean and her wish for an abortion (she doesn’t know if the baby is Llewyn’s or Jim’s – and blame Llewyn for that), and the newly discovered knowledge that the previous girl he arranged an abortion for, never went through it – and simply went home to Akron. And searching for that damned cat that got away. With everything else that has gone wrong, you would think the cat would be the least of his worries (“That is what you feel guilty about?” Jean asks him in disbelief). But it gives him something to focus on – something he may actually be able to fix. And the cat never calls him an asshole, so there’s that.
The second act has Llewyn go on a journey to Chicago – he wants to meet Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) and play at his famous Gate of Horn club. He thinks that he can convince Grossman to represent him, and then his career may take off. He shares the journey with Roland Turner (John Goodman), a heroin addicted jazz musician, who is perhaps an even bigger asshole than Llewyn is – poking and prodding Llewyn about how folk music is awful (“In jazz, we play all the notes – not three chords on a ukulele”) - and deliberately mispronounce his name as Elwin. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, when Turner’s sidekick, Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund, largely silent, but great as he plays off his character in Walter Salles’ adaptation of On the Road), Llewyn just walks away – leaving Turner, and a (different) cat to fend for themselves. Llewyn eventually does make it to the Gate of Horn, meets Grossman, and plays him a beautiful version of The Death of Queen Jane – only to be told bluntly “I don’t see any money here” – and leave more dejected and depressed than ever before – and have to hitchhike back to New York. While driving, he passes a sign for a turnoff for Akron – and distracted, runs over another (or the same) orange cat. Llewyn drives on.
The Gate of Horn sequence is talked about every time Inside Llewyn Davis is discussed – and with good reason, as it may be the best scene in the film. Llewyn’s performance of The Death of Queen Jane – shot mainly in close up, as Llewyn pours his soul into it – is beautiful, and Abraham’s blunt assessment is harsh and rather brutal. Yet, watching the film a second time, I wondered why Llewyn would pick that song to sing to Grossman. He’s trying to convince this man that he has a future, and can make money, as a folk singer. Why would be pick something as blatantly depressing (it’s about death in childbirth after all). Has Llewyn deliberately sabotaged himself? Does he even want to succeed, or is he happier being depressed?
When Llewyn drives by Akron, the Coens leave it to the viewer to decide why he doesn’t pull over. Is it out of selfishness – he never wanted a kid, and doesn’t care that he has one in Akron, or is it perhaps the best thing Llewyn does in the film? What can he realistically offer a child? The mother clearly didn’t want him around and has moved on. Is it really selfishness on Llewyn’s behalf that makes him not pull over, or a strange kind of sacrifice?
When Llewyn returns to New York, the film is more even more downbeat than it was when he left. He has determined to give up – rejoin the merchant marines – and has to deal with bureaucratic red tape before he can ship out. He goes to see his father, and sings another song to him, yet leaves even more depressed than when he arrived – seeing what is perhaps his future laid bare in front of him. He returns to the Gaslight one last time – as we have now caught up to the first scene in the film – and hear one last song from Llewyn – who finally manages to sing the song that was his and Mike’s signature songs – Fare Thee Well – to an appreciative, but not overly enthusiastic crowd. As Llewyn is leaving the stage, he sees the future take his place on it – before heading out to the alley, where, as we know from the opening sequence, he’ll be punched in the face. We now know why he’s being punched – and it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t deserve it, and yet here, like in every scene in the movie, I felt for Llewyn. He’s an asshole, but such a fully realized one, and such a sad one, that I could not help myself. I cried both times I saw the movie as he plays Fare Thee Well – a song that has dual meanings in the film, as Llewyn, I think, is finally ready to move on from the death of Mike, and yet he’s also getting ready to leave music behind him for good. His last line in the movie, a sad, sardonic “Au Revoir” is one of the most perfect endings I can recall.
Inside Llewyn Davis is ultimately about failure, depression and eventually giving up. Is Llewyn depressed because he’s a failure, or is he a failure because he’s depressed, and as a result, acts like an asshole? I’m not sure – and I don’t think it really matters. But Llewyn may not have always been so miserable – listen to the two versions of Fare Thee Well in the movie – the one recorded with Mike sounds much more hopeful, and optimistic, than the one he performs by himself at the end of the movie. When he sings it by himself, he cannot bring himself to sing the third verse, that references his “unborn child” and has the line “Life ain’t worth living, without the one you love” – instead he circles back to the first verse, about Noah’s dove – “flying up the river to the one I love”. Llewyn Davis may well be an asshole – but he’s an asshole I understood and felt for. His dream is coming to an end, he’s decided to give up, and resign him to just “existing” – who wouldn’t be an asshole?
I’ve gone on a lot about the movie already, and haven’t touched on many things in it. It’s humor – from the hilarious “Please Mr. Kennedy” – with Adam Driver’s wonderful vocal sound effects. The style of the film, which is as meticulous as any Coen movie, yet more subdued. They’re not going as overtly stylistic with the art direction or costumes this time around, instead looking to evoke the time and place of New York in 1961 – taking their visual guide from seemingly some album covers – like Inside Dave Van Ronk or Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’. They’re more interested in realism here than the more overtly stylized movies they have often made in the past. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is wonderful – from Llewyn’s backlit performances in the smoky Gaslight Café, often focused solely on Llewyn himself with the crowd cut out – it’s onstage where he is most himself, and with his eyes closed, he is blocking out everything around him. The streets of New York have never seemed so cold and foreboding – the romanticism of being on the road on his journey to (and from Chicago) has been completely drained - the road is a cold and desolate place. All the music, produced by T-Bone Burnett, is beautifully orchestrated and hits the different subgenres of folk music at the time. The performances in the movie are all top notch – Oscar Isaac in particular delivers what may be the best performance in a Coen brother movie. The supporting cast is filled with memorable faces and moments. One of my only problems with the film at a first look was I thought Carey Mulligan’s Jean was perhaps a tad underwritten –but watching it a second time, I noticed how many different notes she hits – how underneath all that righteous anger in the scene in the park, there really is an overarching feeling of sadness, and Mulligan plays it beautifully.
Unlike most of the films I wrote about in this series, I’ve only seen Inside Llewyn Davis twice. I feel there’s even more here to write about, to parse through. It is, for me, the most emotional of any of the Coen films – the most deeply felt. It is, in a word, a masterpiece.