New York State of Mind
By Michael Koresky
Inside Llewyn Davis
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, U.S., CBS Films
Usually lost, always put upon, the Coen brothers’ main characters are defined by futility. They may even be a little bit aware of that futility, or at least the circularity of their quests, which makes them stirring, even tragic figures. Raising Arizona’s H. I. McDunnough, Barton Fink, Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There’s Ed Crane, and A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik—all are united by their essential aloneness and their incredulity at the world when they try to transgress that solitude. In Llewyn Davis the Coen brothers may have come upon their perfect protagonist. A folk singer trying to make it in early sixties Greenwich Village, Llewyn is just as alone as any of those characters, maybe even more so. He has a finely sculpted martyr complex. He is a wanderer who doesn’t necessarily want to be one—he’s just forced to be by circumstance. He exists on the peripheries of a major turning point in American culture; he’s not caught in the tide of history as much as washed up on its rocky shore.
Much writing about the Coen brothers gets bogged down by focusing on the wrong things—especially whether they “like” or “mock” their characters, and whether their tendency to alight on various regions or social enclaves reflects an inherent patronization. Though I’ve engaged with and questioned them before, these are ultimately dead-end critical avenues: not only is such alleged mockery often in the eye of the beholder, to accuse artists of insufficient humanism confers relative and irreconcilable value judgments on them. It ought to be rather clear by now that the Coens’ body of work constitutes the closest we have to a consistent existential American cinema. This helps explain that sense of detachment in their films, often misread as condescension. Theirs is admittedly not an open-arms type of filmmaking, but no one could accuse Inside Llewyn Davis, at once their warmest and most fragile film, of treating its complicated, imperfect protagonist with disdain. From its opening shot, the camera caresses Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), who enters from frame right to meet a microphone in wait. This is the Gaslight Café circa 1961, a hallowed MacDougal Street basement, and the air is thick with cigarettes and anticipation. Bathed in a dramatic halo of light that wouldn’t be out of place in a Spielberg film, Llewyn sings the beautifully dour traditional folk song “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” The film is beguiled and so are we. Unlike perhaps Barton Fink, the Dude, or Ed Crane, this is a man with unquestionable talent, which ultimately makes his aimlessness even more poignant.
At the same time, Inside Llewyn Davis is a remarkably unromantic film about the solitary wanderer. A lack of sentiment and a disinterest in perpetuating hoary myths have always partly defined the Coens’ films, but perhaps because of the backdrop here—a time and place that often invites simple nostalgic rhapsodizing—this new film feels even more pronounced in its refusal to engage with cliché. The touchstones and signifiers of early sixties Village life are seen as though from a rear-view mirror (the sign for Beat haunt Kettle of Fish beckons from the back corner of the frame). The hotbed of activity that we’ve come to expect from representations of this milieu—of visionaries and radicals’ minds buzzing and bouncing off each other, of talent embraced and nurtured, of comedians and singer-songwriters and artists’ creative pistons pumping in ceaseless motion—is replaced here by a general grayness, a pragmatic vision of everyday struggle that reads as alternately realistic and dreamlike, a landscape of the mind. Llewyn’s circular journey is a largely interiorized one, and the Coens seem less interested in philosophically engaging with simplistic music-biz binaries such as sell-out commercialism versus independent ethos than in expressing the importance and difficulty of maintaining solitude in the creation of art.
As we come to realize, Llewyn, hoofing it alone from gig to gig, sleeping on the couches of pals and girlfriends, was formerly part of a duo, until his partner, Mike, jumped off the George Washington Bridge. The circumstances of Llewyn’s enforced status as a solo artist are particularly affecting considering the film is made by American movies’ most famous duo. For this reason, Inside Llewyn Davis feels like the Coens’ most personal film, though it’s unlikely they would ever admit it. The Coens have never represented onscreen a successful and emotionally stable partnership, preferring instead to create protagonists who, in trying to extricate themselves from stupor, toil, or just a bad situation, end up alienating the world. (True Grit comes the closest to offering a strong central duo, between its stoic grizzly man and young female whippersnapper, but finally acknowledges their partnership as impossible.) And in turn they tend to feel put upon by everyone around them: wives, bosses, agents, business associates, kids, in-laws, German nihilists. This tends to explain the hyper-real, or even grotesque, quality that so many of the Coens’ supporting characters seem to take on. More often than not they come across like manifestations of the protagonist’s subconscious—sometimes demonic, often crude. For Llewyn, these people include, variously, Jean (Carey Mulligan, feebly trying on another American accent), a fed-up ex he’s gotten pregnant who’s demanding assistance for an abortion; her lightweight musical partner, Jim (Justin Timberlake, in a trim beard); Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), a humorless, baby-faced soldier and folk singer crashing at Jean’s place; gawky Jewish cowboy Al Cody (that latter-day Ichabod Crane known as Adam Driver), an acquaintance of Jim’s with whom Llewyn records a novelty folk song as a last-minute fill-in; and the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Barrett), a couple of Columbia University academics who’ve taken a shine to Llewyn and whose tabby cat becomes his unwanted charge after a mishap with their apartment door.
This feline is a crucial character as well, and aside from representing the best onscreen animal performance in many a moon, he ends up as a moving symbolic approximation of Llewyn himself. The cat—whose name is revealed in a touching late-film joke—and the peripatetic singer have much in common, not least the precariousness of their existences, so reliant are they on the kindnesses of others and so fragile are they, always eluding one’s grasp. Yet even this friendship is nigh impossible to maintain, as the two always seem to be constantly losing each other. Like the cat in the old song, Llewyn constantly gets lost but he always comes back.
As so many of their films (especially The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and A Serious Man), Inside Llewyn Davis is a single unified linear narrative made up of what seem like endless random detours. The most prominent of these is a Chicago drive, in which Llewyn, en route to folk venue the Gate of Horn, finds himself the unwelcome car passenger of two acquaintances of Al’s: Roland Turner (John Goodman), a gargantuan heroin addict spewing Mephistophelean venom from the back seat and propping himself on a pair of canes for his frequent gas-station bathroom breaks, and his taciturn assistant (Garrett Hedlund), another Coen loner, but vaguely threatening in his emotional distance. Apart from the brilliantly surreal, off-kilter mood it sustains, this centerpiece sequence functions as an effective bit of anti-Kerouac playfulness. Here, the open road offers nothing more than a hellish ride in which the car becomes a tightly enclosed echo chamber of Llewyn’s own neuroses, voiced aloud rudely by Roland. In store for Llewyn at his destination is further rejection, this time at the hands of the Gate of Horn manager (F. Murray Abraham), who, following Llewyn’s heartfelt performance proclaims, “I don’t see a lot of money here” before suggesting he join a trio, or at least get back together with his partner. Finally, all roads lead right back to where he started, into the lap of constant repudiation, the final icy drive haunted by the image of a hobbled animal (Llewyn’s guilt? Or his self-betrayed innocence?) limping off the side of the highway.
Naturally, the Coens manage to make all this potentially heavy-handed material play as lightly as a casually strummed tune. Self-defeating Llewyn is never painted as a mere victim of circumstance, and Oscar Isaac, in a vibrantly neurotic, hopefully star-making performance, doesn’t angle for the audience’s sympathy (at least when he’s off the stage). In one striking moment, we discover that Jean is not the first woman he’s impregnated—it’s a scene that might have sent the film down a new avenue, but in preeminent Coen style is raised only to hang in the air. Scene for scene, Inside Llewyn Davis makes its main character’s every gesture and quirk a tiny revelation—there’s a lovely throwaway moment in which he strums chords on his guitar along to Bach’s “Matthäus Passion” spinning on the turntable. And along with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, the directors find elegant, inventive ways to visualize his situation, authentically capturing what makes city dwelling at once so inviting and forbidding. Rarely have the hairbreadth hallways and terrazzo floors of New York apartments looked so surreal on film. Llewyn belongs in these spaces and yet doesn’t; even in the neighborhood’s smoky basements and casual coffeehouses, like that still-standing relic Café Reggio, Llewyn is a square peg, a reminder that history’s legendary refuges for oddballs could not be sufficient asylum for all.
Like its main character, the Coens’ film is in an unsettling in-between state. Inside Llewyn Davis takes place at a cultural moment after the revival of folk music as a mainstream genre, largely for harmonizing groups, like the white-bread, widely accessible Kingston Trio, and before the rise of more idiosyncratic, politically minded solo artists like Dylan and Joan Baez. (Llewyn was reportedly modeled after Brooklyn-born folk singer Dave Van Ronk.) If the film itself feels rather ambivalent about folk overall, executive music producer T. Bone Burnett helps curate an aural landscape for the film that’s exquisitely calibrated to incite both wistful longing (“Hang Me Oh Hang Me,” “Fare Thee Well,” “The Death of Queen Jane”) and the occasional satirical smile (“Please Mr. Kennedy”). Music has always been crucial to the Coens’ films, which rely on a certain orchestral grandness, but here, even more so than in O Brother Where Art Thou?, the soundtrack is a character itself, speaking to and for Llewyn in his blankest moments. This man doesn’t seem destined for greatness, which is not a judgment on his talent. They say timing is everything—and this is true for success and failure. The Coens remind us of this at the film’s close, in a brilliant sleight of hand. Glimpsed out of the corner of our—and Llewyn’s—eyes: another solitary man. But this one is the future, even if he already looks like a ghost.