Inside Llewyn Davis
Who isn’t a Coen Brothers fan? Few other directorial entities (since they are joined at the hip in terms of employment it seems) can boost their long list of critical smash hits across a wide variety of different genres. The latest effort, wowing audiences, critics and a few awards shows (though not, it seems, the Oscars) calls back to the likes of O Brother, Where Art Thou? in much of its style, but forms a very different film when all is said and done.
The titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac) is a musician, part of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960’s, whose life is at a low ebb. His attempted solo career has bombed following the suicide of his musical partner. His friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant and he might be the father, something she, seeking an illegal abortion, is desperate to hide from her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake). Llewyn is homeless, spending his nights on a succession of couches, his only company frequently being a friend’s cat he is forced by circumstance to care for. Through a week of Davis’ life, we follow him on a journey to keep his musical dream alive, even as it recedes before him.
For my spoiler-free review, click here to go to the Write Club. Past this point will be more in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a strange one. It begins with a scene of the title character playing a mournful folk song and then taking a beating from an angry punter in an alley behind the club. It ends with the exact same scene being played out again, only with some slight extension. It is unclear whether these are supposed to be the same moments, making the beginning of the film an in medias reis type situation, if the opening was just some kind of déjà vu, or if the whole thing is to indicate a repeated cycle.
This is the best example of the biggest problem with Inside Llewyn Davis, which is that the films structure and narrative consistency is all over the place, in a manner that the Coen Brothers have not been guilty of before. There is a limited amount of plot in Inside Llewyn Davis, mostly to do with Davis’ hopes of continuing his music carer and auditioning for a music honcho in Chicago. But that portion of the plot is resolved with a fair chunk of Inside Llewyn Davis still to go, and gets sidelined by other, seemingly less important, stuff at numerous stages. The result is a film that seems largely directionless, with the directors’ content to simply present us the persona of Llewyn Davis, hopeful that this will suffice.
I don’t think it does. Inside Llewyn Davis is an example of a film that thinks its cleverer than it is, as if the Coen Brothers were somehow worried that the art house crowd were turning against them. As a result, we get a film that seems to be weighted down with inane symbolism and meandering plot details. You’ll always be wary of bringing up a criticism like this, lest you find yourself accused of “not getting it”, but I simply found the way that the Coen’s went about their business this time to be nigh on incomprehensible at points. The structure simply didn’t exist for large parts, especially the last 20 minutes or so, which were as random and all over the place as they come. Davis’ story had reached a conclusion, but we had to get glimpses of him stumbling around different locations and enduring even more misery, for reasons that I cannot understand.
I’ve offered a brief plot synopsis above, but that’s far too clear for what Inside Llewyn Davis actually offered us. OK, we have Davis, a man facing plenty of problems in the setting. He has obstacles and misfortunes. He sees a chance to audition for this guy in Chicago in order to make everything right. That’s a character, that’s a story, that’s a goal.
So, why all the stuff with the cat? Why all the stuff with the Jean character’s abortion, which ended abruptly at the conclusion of the first act? Why the little sub-plot around the song “Please Mr Kennedy”, which left a few threads dangling? Why the lengthy and drawn out car ride to Chicago with the beat poet and cantankerous jazz musician? All these little turn-offs from the main point, all these sub-plots that are introduced, elaborated upon (sometimes to endless detail) and for very little pay-off at their conclusion, if they even get one.
The beginning and ending is key to that. The Coen’s leave it up to our own interpretation I suppose, which is fine. But there are times when such vague storytelling is an irritant rather than a thrill. I was left confused and unsatisfied by the ending of Inside Llewyn Davis, so in that sense the Coen’s have failed. Endings are hard, but they’ve come up with good ones before.
The specific character journey for Davis also falls down a fair bit. Much like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf Of Wall Street, a lot of things happen to him and around him, but he seems to learn precious little. There is a theme in Inside Llewyn Davis of being trapped in a repeating cycle, but that doesn’t mean your main character doesn’t have to learn anything, or fail to change one iota. Davis makes a pretence at change throughout the course of Inside Llewyn Davis, but it really all so much bluster and lies: by the end, he’s making the same mistakes and displaying the same moronic behaviour as he always has. His journey to Chicago simply seems to leave him colder, but he doesn’t come to some great revelation about his life or the nature of music: he just keeps on going the same as he has always done, within this cycle that the Coen’s have drawn out for him. Even if it was something as basic as “a career in music isn’t going to work out”, and the film ended with Davis heading off with the merchant marine, I would have been more satisfied. The depression of the ending would have been retained, and we would have seen Davis make some kind of change in his life, even if it might not be for the better and does not play into the usual stereotypes of a tale like this. Everything doesn’t have to work out for Davis, but he still needs a conclusion, a sense of finality to his story.
You might not care too much though, because of the thoroughly unlikeable main character. Llewyn is a true stinker, the kind of aimless wastrel that would be the villain if this story was told just a little bit differently. Perhaps it is for the best that the Coen Brothers have forgone traditional “Hero’s Journey” dynamics and any sense of purpose for him, because it would be very hard for any rational audience to root for Llewyn, after hearing his repeated insults to friends and family, the dismissive way he treats Jean and her pregnancy and the way that he constantly seems to be leaning on others, all in pursuit of a very selfish dream. For many of the same reasons that I disliked The World’s End, I found myself unimpressed by Inside Llewyn Davis, insofar as I cared very little for the success, happiness or fate of the main focus. He curses out the man offering him a coat to ward off the winter chill. He belittles the soldier playing at the club for reasons of common jealously. He snaps disgracefully at the couple who have offered him shelter. He keeps impregnating women and wavers on taking any kind of real responsibility, actively avoiding it at a crucial point. He betrays a friend by sleeping with his wife. He insults his sister. He avoids his home-bound father. He snaps at the guy he’s auditioning for. He repeatedly insults other performers.
Over and over and over with this. Davis is a miserable creature, and if Inside Llewyn Davis has any actual plot holes, it’s all in the fact that Davis even has any friends left. Numerous people seem to be totally entranced by him – even Jean seems to have swung round to liking him again by the end – and it’s never really made clear why. He’s a total parasite, yet Inside Llewyn Davis seems to be set up in such a way that we are supposed to feel sad that all of his lifelong ambitions are not working out. The failure of these ambitions did not really make me sad, and in fact I saw a measure of cosmic justice in this. Maybe that was the Coen’s intention, but Davis is still set-up as a protagonist in the traditional ways with numerous attempts to make him seem pitiable rather than reprehensible.
So we have a main character whom I largely detested not long after his initial introduction, which set me against Inside Llewyn Davis big time. Then there is the nuances of the plot he was engaged in. The idea that Llewyn is trapped in a cyclical narrative is hammered into the audiences head by the end, with only occasional moments of greater brilliance – like, say, when he thinks about tracking down the child he never knew he had, then balks, intent on staying his predictable course. By the end it seems to be that Llewyn is trapped once more, doomed to repeat his nastiness and failures all over again, unless he isn’t – like I said, the ending is very unclear.
Then there is the Homeric stuff, a well that the Coen’s should have drunk dry in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but have come back to once again here. The Homeric allusions and references in that film were obvious because they had to be: it was a unique retelling of The Odyssey after all. In Inside Llewyn Davis, they are unsubtle to a fault. The cat that Llewyn obsessed over throughout Inside Llewyn Davis turns out to be called Ulysses: this cat takes a journey to a faraway place but manages to get back to where he started despite some serious scrapes. Davis’ quest to find the cat then turns him into some sort of Telemachus, an allusion as obvious as it was unnecessary. Davis’ journey to Chicago is to a club called the Gate of Horn, a place where his dreams may come true, just as they do in The Odyssey’s equivalent. John Goodman’s character has more than a bit of the Cyclops about him again, and he also fulfils the role of a Poseidon, cursing Davis as the God of the sea cursed Odysseus. And the entire film is based around repeated references to a great journey, sometimes literal, sometimes not so literal, that always ends with people coming home.
It’s unsubtle and, dare I say, a little lazy. It speaks back to my criticism that Inside Llewyn Davis is trying to be smarter than it has to be: for me, calling something a Gate of Horn in this context might as well come with a sign on the front with the relevant quotation from the book. It’s not even “The Horn” or “Dream Gate” for goodness sake. This kind of thing is a mild distraction from the rest of the film, but speaks to deeper flaws with Inside Llewyn Davis development and execution.
Going through the film in an act by act basis we can examine how parts of it come together and how parts of it don’t. The first act is probably the film’s best, containing the most coherent narrative and the better dialogue. We are introduced to Llewyn Davis, folk musician and all round scumbag. He has nowhere to live, he takes advantage of people, he’s gotten a friend’s wife pregnant and now has to (again) pay for an illegal abortion, his music career has stalled. It’s all set up step by step, the continuing pile-on. You get the proper sense that Davis is floundering and doesn’t really see a way out, chronically short of cash to the extent that he turns down royalties on a song just for a moderate amount of money immediately. And while he might be full of negative characteristics, there is the bare smidgeon of some better elements, like how he cares for the cat he allowed to escape or his willingness to try and help Jean (well, to the extent that he does). This first act is good. He features good scenes, good dialogue between the key characters.
But the problem is that so much of it vanishes very quickly afterwards. Once Llewyn gets into the car to drive to Chicago, the Jean and Jim characters are largely done in Inside Llewyn Davis for example, with only Jean having one more short scene. The film becomes progressively more silent in terms of wordplay and Davis’ few good characteristics begin to vanish.
A perfect example of this abandoning of plot elements might be the song “Please Mr Kennedy”. Inside Llewyn Davis focuses on Davis’ decision to forgo royalties, an element of his short-term goals. We might well imagine that this will come back up again, that the song will become a hit before the film ends and Davis will be left even more in an emotional hole. But it doesn’t. One character briefly envisions the sing becoming a hit late on, but we never see it happen. It’s just another dangling thread.
The second act starts this downfall, taking on the form, mostly, of an extended car ride to Chicago. Davis shares it with a beat poet named “Johnny Five” who barely talks and is difficult to understand when he does, and a crotchety Jazz musician in the back seat, who spends a third of his time sleeping, a third of it ranting to Davis about the most random stuff and one third of it taking heroin. They somewhat talk, they stop for gas, the beat poet mumbles, the miles stretch on.
Around the time this has crossed from “trying to understand the symbolism” to “tedious”, Davis loses the beat poet to an arrest and then decides to abandon the ODing jazz musician and the cat he took with him at the side of the road. It’s probabaly the most reprehensible thing that Davis does in the course of Inside Llewyn Davis, since the guy in question might very well be nearing death and the cat has nowhere to go. But abandon them he does. He has to get to Chicago. So symbolic is this section that maybe we simply aren’t supposed to care about these characters.
And Chicago is a bust as we might well have imagined it would be. Davis struggles through the ice and snow just to be told that there is no money in the music that he is offering. But, when offered the chance to become part of a trio, he flatly refuses, for reasons best known to himself I suppose. With the standard ending subverted, as we must have known it would be, Davis heads home. He briefly has a chance to track down a former lover and the child she is hiding from him, but veers away. He hits a cat – maybe the cat – and watches it limp away.
The second act just poisons the Davis character even more and is wrapped up in such dense symbolism as to be almost unwatchable in sections. The dialogue gets increasingly mundane, the supporting characters increasingly bizarre. And then the plot essentially finishes.
The third act see’s Llewyn back at home. If he’s learned anything it’s that he’s just “tired” of the way his life is going – but remember he turned down the chance to continue his music career and then change it significantly on the road back from Chicago. He spends the last act bouncing around locations of increasing depression: paying a large amount of money to get his marine union membership renewed, visiting his ailing father, insulting his sister, losing his merchant marine license and getting foul mouthed about it, before finally ending up back at the club screaming abuse at an innocent singer. Davis is not chronically unlucky as he would like himself to appear, but is the author of his own misfortunes time and time again: he lets his union membership lapse, he tells his sister to throw his stuff (and his license out), he ignores his father consistently and his rant at the singer seemed more a reaction to being told that the club owner had once slept with Jean than anything else.
This third act is meandering and completely without structure. It seems to be about Davis trying to get his life back on some kind of track, but all he does is blunder around and make things worse for himself.
The conclusion almost makes Inside Llewyn Davis look like an otherworldly Purgatory story: a shadowy figure beats Davis in an alley, and he starts the cycle over again (or does he?). Davis offers a snarky comment to the man driving away, as if his situation is one to be laughed away, and that’s the film. The conclusion offers no catharsis and certainly no sense of finality or an actual ending, a cardinal sin, the cherry on the top of an awful final act that seemed to be just based around getting a few more songs out of the title character and very little on increasing or rounding off his story. Is this the point of the film? Perhaps it is. That doesn’t mean I have to like it though, and it doesn’t automatically make it good cinema.
A few other notes before I move on. In terms of female characters, Inside Llewyn Davis really isn’t up to much. There are only two of any real note, Jean and Davis’ sister Joy. Jean is only pivotally involved in just four scenes, one of which she was just singing. Her character seems to be based around conflicting opinions towards Llewyn, with whom she had sex with, and then is furious with when a pregnancy results but later seems more sympathetic to him again. Just another part of the cycle that Inside Llewyn Davis seems to be about I guess. But apart from her relationship with Llewyn there really isn’t anything to the Jean character. We don’t really see much of her marriage to Jim and her overly-hostile reaction to her pregnancy, blaming it entirely on Llewyn, doesn’t exactly make her amazingly endearing. She’s just another person to bounce off of the title character, to denigrate him, insult him and make him feel like a loser in the first act (most of it justified). Apart from her brief return in the last act, when she’s just someone for Llewyn to talk to about his own internal conflict, she’s done in the film.
Llewyn’s sister is little better, just another target for him to try and mooch off of, only she’s a little better at deflecting him. The Lillian character is basically the same too, only she is horrified at the abuse that Davis doles out so flippantly.
Overall, I would not say that the women of Inside Llewyn Davis were very well portrayed or given a great deal of agency in which to grow as characters. Inside Llewyn Davis is all about Llewyn Davis and everyone else is just there so that he can have people to lean on.
A brief note on another, somewhat disturbing, aspect of Inside Llewyn Davis: the near complete absence of minorities, even in the extras. You’ll see this complaint crop up now and then (Notting Hill is probably the most obvious example), that of a multi-cultural area of the world being portrayed in film as only housing one race – the white one. I’ve never believed that filmmakers are obligated to try for a racial equality in their work, but it behoves them to simply include different races, especially in the time and place and Inside Llewyn Davis purports to be set.
Lastly, it is clear that Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that is all about music. The Coen’s have a track record with this particular genre of course. The problem is that the choice of general theme is controlling the rest of the production, or at least so I think. It feels as if parts of the plot were made very haphazardly, just a means with which to get to the next musical set-piece. That’s a problem. The Coen’s would have been better served if they had focused at bit more on their narrative instead of their inner musical desires. I like listening to Davis sing (more in a moment) but I would have preferred this be part of a better story.
In acting terms, Oscar Isaacs is competent and little more as Llewyn, an opinion that seems to be going against the grain of most reviews. He does as much as he has to, in a part that see’s him mostly silent or mostly singing, rather than trying to utilise the script that has been provided. He has his moments of genuine acting talent, not least during a long car ride sequence around the middle, but for the most part he’s staring blankly at the people whom he is either screwing over or are screwing him over.
His real emotional range only really shines through when he sings, but that’s not enough for somebody who is headlining a Coen Brothers film. It’s not like Isaacs has never acted before, but he plays the part of Davis here with a simplicity that borders on amateurish. It’s not enough to simply look cold and miserable, you have to act it out, make me believe it, and do that without having to resort to (admittedly) impressive melodies. His Davis takes the news that Jean is pregnant, that he has nowhere to stay, that his music has been rejected, with a consistent look of surprise and concealed annoyance. There’s little more beyond that. The few minutes of larger emotion, usually anger, do not really indicate that Isaac is one for the ages. His Davis is dour and boring most of the time, and past the second act the sheer lack of lines that he actually has might be at the heart of this matter. I suppose Isaac was good enough at playing an asshole to make me dislike Davis intensely by the conclusion of Inside Llewyn Davis, but he wasn’t good enough to make me really buy into his performance totally.
Carey Mulligan is a fine actress, but she’s had some dud performances (like last years The Great Gatsby). Here, as mentioned, she’s limited in the scenes that she actually has and the material that she has to work with. Still, her moments of biting anger towards Llewyn are well presented, especially in the conversations she has with him in the snow and in a coffee house. There’s a proper sense of someone who is tired of Davis’ nonsense and is willing to call him on it, but is brought down by her own hypocrisy. I enjoyed Mulligan’s performance, I only wish I had seen more of it. As it is, she appears to be in 5-10 minutes of the film.
Justin Timberlake has it worse of course, with basically just three scenes, two of them revolving around singing rather than acting. Timberlake’s a fine actor, having made the jump from pure music a while ago with aplomb. But, like Mulligan, but to a worse extent, he just doesn’t really get a chance to act much here. His songs are great, but he disappears after Llewyn sets off for Chicago and that’s a shame. The issue of his wife cheating on him and getting pregnant gets no kind of resolution.
The rest of the parts in Inside Llewyn Davis are very basic and get even less time than the above mentioned. John Goodman is criminally wasted as the heroin addicted jazz musician, who is asleep for half of his time in the film. Garrett Hedlund’s few lines are hard to understand. F. Murray Abraham is quiet and reserved in his one sequence, but was effective nonetheless. Stark Sands was memorable as the folk playing soldier who was as simple as he was nice. Jeanine Serralles was decent as Davis’ much maligned sister. Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett and Max Casella, in small roles, do just fine.
The cast is OK, overall, but with the amount of time that Issac is taking with his humdrum portrayal of the title character, nobody else really has a chance to shine too bright, even if they might be doing a better overall job. Outside of Isaac and Mulligan, everyone else seems almost to just be having extended cameos rather than really active parts in proceedings.
The film stands up in other areas, one of which is the visual side of things. It’s shot rather beautifully, with the dark palettes of winter in the north-east United States captured in all of its depressing mundanity, the shadowy music stages where the power of the melody is found all recreated rather vividly. The consistent contrast between the snow and the dark clothes and stone buildings almost give Inside Llewyn Davis a monochrome feel, like it is a film made in another age, even before the date of its setting.
Davis’ life and locations are grubby, cramped places – every home he enters seems to be a tiny place where the walls are closing in, seen most clearly in the many apartment block hallway shots – and the Coen’s are able to capture that very well.
It’s a nice slice of American culture and history, and the capturing it was probably a key motivation for the Coens. This is a time before folk became a bit more mainstream thanks to the likes of Bob Dylan, who makes a brief, rather surprising cameo near the conclusion (not the real guy of course, he’s too busy selling out to Chrysler) and in a way seems more sentimental and mystical because of it. Capturing it in the right way, visually, was very important, and I think that the directing duo, with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel were able to do that for the most part. It’s dark and very downbeat most of the way – you can almost feel the cold radiating off the screen at times – but that’s pretty much what was required.
The more general camerawork is all of a top quality level, mostly static and mostly close-up on Llewyn, taking in his upper body and face more than anything or anyone else. This allows the capturing of Isaac’s performance a bit better, and permits him to be right up in front of the audience whenever he unleashes that singing talent. Some good sets are utilised as well, not least the two main clubs that feature in Inside Llewyn Davis, one full of listening punters wreathed in cigarette smoke, another near empty, brightened only by piercing stabs of vague sunlight through a snow filled day. If the Coen’s can say nothing else about Inside Llewyn Davis, they can at least say that it is another great visual work of art for the cinema.
But they can say something else, because the script work – where it exists – is good too. The Coen’s have always been good at capturing the voice of a certain time and place, making it accessible to a modern audience without losing much of what it once was. 1960’s Greenwich gets the same treatment as the American south of the Depression did in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Some great accent work, some compelling back and forth and even the faintest trace of monologue mark Inside Llewyn Davis out. The problem, as previously mentioned, is that the most of (and best of) the dialogue is contained in the first 45 or so minutes, with the rest of the production, most notably that turgid second act, not really having enough script to make it more memorable, not even with John Goodman’s bizarre and offensive rants (one of the best moments is his comment on Davis’ dead partner throwing himself off the George Washington Bridge: “You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally. George Washington Bridge? Who does that?”
But when it does exist, its wordplay as charming as it is moving, perhaps most notably as Llewyn talks about his fatigue, a fatigue not of the body but of the soul. The best acted line is his simple “I’m tired”, and even though he goes on to explain exactly what it means, it wasn’t even necessary: the audience knows exactly what Llewyn means when he says these words, and it has nothing to do with lack of sleep. Other moments of good wordplay include the Llewyn conversation with the F. Murray Abraham character, his conversation with Jean in the coffee shop or his startlingly foul-mouthed outburst towards an imagined slight from the Lillian character. The Jean character is also well written in her own right, even if she seems a little too irrational at points, and this was one of the reasons I wish I could have seen more of her.
Musically, it’s a triumph, and Inside Llewyn Davis’s real saving grace. If the music was a bomb, it would be easy to write Inside Llewyn Davis off as a total dud, but it isn’t, and I say that as someone who generally has only a bare appreciation for folk. My first proper brush with the genre was with the sort of stuff that O Brother, Where Art Thou? included (which I know isn’t really pure folk, but is close enough) and Inside Llewyn Davis an excellent continuation of that legacy. I’ll mention a few select examples.
If Isaac wasn’t a great actor in my eyes, you can rest assured that he is an excellent singer. The opening features “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, a depressingly mournful ballad that sets the scene nicely for what is to come, introducing us to the desperate and forlorn character with several minutes of moving song. In the same scene Davis expertly describes the true quality of folk, in that it is never old and never new, not really, it is just sort of timeless.
The Jim and Jean characters, along with Stark Sands soldier, offer “500 Miles Away From Home”, a scene and song straight out of the Peter, Paul and Mary playbook, which is exactly what the scene was trying to create. It’s a wonderfully soothing melody that, with very simple lyrics, evokes feelings of distance and homesickness.
Jim’s last input on Inside Llewyn Davis is with “Please Mr Kennedy”, a novelty song which, as far as I know, is the only original song written for the production. It’s depicted in Inside Llewyn Davis as an inane joke of a tune, that Llewyn despises, but I found it fantastically catchy and a great riff on the space age of the time. Credit to Adam Driver’s tiny role having a great part in the performing of this song, and it was a fine choice to show its recording as a nice set-piece scene.
When Davis auditions for the record label owner, he does so with “The Death Of Queen Jane”. The final conclusion of the audition is that the song is good but financially unappealing, a gut check to both Llewyn and the audience because it is such a beautiful song, slow and sad, capturing a really tangible sense of grief and lost love.
“The Shoals Of Herring” is a powerful song about employment and a masculine ethos that Davis performs for his elderly and failing father. While the performance was good, it was the circumstances that made it especially moving, with Davis having no other way to make any kind of real connection with his father than through song. This song and the manner in which Davis performs its makes that connection between them briefly, as the father remembers his days at sea and his son contemplates his own possible future on the waves. The attempt at humour that follows largely ruined it though.
A group of singers, including Timberlake (on the recorded version) and Marcus Mumford perform a slow version of the Irish classic “The Auld Triangle”. I prefer my versions of it a bit faster (like this one), but I can appreciate this slower, louder and more pronounced rendition, where you really get a sense of what the lyrics entail. It’s the sort of song that sums up the musical spirit of an entire city, and it isn’t New York (though it sort of fits there).
Lastly, there is “Fare Thee Well”, also known as “Dink’s Song”, which is repeated at several points in Inside Llewyn Davis, depicted as the stand-out hit of Davis and his late partners duo, and later a song that he struggles to play on his own. It’s a really fantastic effort here, a love song that manages to encapsulate feelings of loss and heartache at the same time and I could have listened to a few more playings of it throughout. It’s what “Man of Constant Sorrow” was to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Davis might not take much of its lyrics to heart in his journey, but it was still a wonderfully executed tune.
The fact that most of this music was recorded live by the cast seals its quality, and imbues the production with a higher sense of togetherness with the period it is trying to depict. It’s Inside Llewyn Davis’s best element, by a country mile, and is worth the price of admission alone. Inside Llewyn Davis could be the worst of the worst in all of its other facets, but it still stands proudly musically.
So, what are the main themes of Inside Llewyn Davis? The most obvious one, that I have mentioned several times, is circles, or rather being trapped inside one. Inside Llewyn Davis frames the life of Llewyn Davis being a revolving one. He starts out in the gutter, a week of events passes, and he’s back in the gutter. That week is marked by a succession of repetitive behaviour and events, from falling out with friends, slumming it from place to place and a complete inability to actually find a way out.
Which is the main point, seemingly. So many of the things that happen to Davis repeat or are repeats in Inside Llewyn Davis. It seems that since his partner died – the balance perhaps, that was previously keeping Davis on a better path – he has found himself lost in this Limbo-like cycle. He keeps going back to the same club for a pittance. He keeps begging the same people if he can sleep at their home for a few days. He keeps making a distance between himself and others with his snarky or nasty comments. He keeps making decisions that come back to bite him in the ass. He knocks another girl up and again has to organise an illegal termination to protect their lives.
But the problem is worse than that. Davis is incapable of breaking the cycle, and his attempts to do so are either disastrous failures or show him lacking the will to follow them through. His audition to keep his music career going doesn’t end well. When offered the chance to join a trio, he balks and runs back to his terrible life in New York. When the universe offers the chance to track down an ex who he just found out had his child several years ago, Davis briefly thinks about it and then stays on the road back to New York. When he approaches the possibility of re-joining the merchant marine, it turns out that, typically of him, he has failed to keep up on his union membership and other dues. Thanks to some previous tantrums, he lacks the opportunity to make up for it.
So, he goes back to the club, plays his music, makes his pittance and continues to lash out. The cycle begins again. Of course, this only holds true if we consider those bookends as the ending and beginning of cycles, which places Inside Llewyn Davis at a higher metaphysical level in terms of narrative. If there are one and the same, then Llewyn is simply left drifting at the conclusion, with no prospects and seemingly no will to find a proper way out, which is almost worse than being caught in a cycle.
Inside Llewyn Davis loves its Homeric references, and there was a cycle there too, of a man being caught out by his own hubris and paying the price repeatedly. But he still made it home into the arms of his wife and son. He broke the cycle. Davis does not. He doesn’t get what he wants. The Inside Llewyn Davis equivalent of The Odyssey would be if Odysseus was defeated outside the gates of Troy, and got home to find his wife re-married and his son dead. The Homeric allusions only go so far.
That is connected to another key theme, that of a search for home, or a place of belonging. Davis is basically a vagrant in Inside Llewyn Davis, just a hairs breath away from sleeping on the street. He has nowhere to really call home, moving from couch to couch, charity to charity. He stays nowhere too long. His family are not interested in putting him up for too long either.
Music is Llewyn’s goal and key interest, and he only seems happy at certain moments of playing. He ignores a quest for finding a home or just a place to hang his hat for more than few days in favour of chasing a hopeless dream in Chicago, where the only time he can get warm is at a diner. When he gets back, the same restrictions apply, and he cannot even find a place to live at sea.
Jim and Jean have created a home, openly talking about having children of their own, a state of affairs that Llewyn comes close to destroying. His sister has a set family life. His father has something akin to a final resting place. Davis reacts poorly when confronted with such things as he doesn’t have. Llewyn is cast aside like the other derelicts of society – the jazz musician ODing in a public restroom, the beat poet getting arrested, the uncouth club owner bragging about his sexual conquests – and refocuses his anger on the rest of the damned. He finds no way out, and the film ends with him in the gutter, with no one for solace, the only thing he can offer being a sarcastic comment. It seems likely he will never find a home.
Then there is simple existence. For Llewyn, “existing” is not enough. He has to go for broke with his music career, inadvertently insulting the people around him who he deems to have settled for less – his musical friends who seem to no longer be as committed to the scene, the ones who have created a functioning family life, the agents who have other people to worry about. Davis is so single-minded about his music that he cannot comprehend anything else, at least until someone with power in the industry flat out tells him his solo career is going nowhere.
From there he makes his own attempts to simply “exist” but they all fall short. He keeps making the same mistakes and brings up some brand new ones. Just living a life without music seems impossible for someone like Davis, who still clings to the dream long past the possibility of its success. The people “existing” in Inside Llewyn Davis are the ones succeeding, despite Davis’ scorn. He is just existing in another way, the barely mentionable downtrodden way, that could well lead to suicide just as it did his partner. Maybe he too saw no way out other than just existing and could not handle such a choice.
Davis might have had some recognisable fame for a time, but it’s long gone in the frame of Inside Llewyn Davis. He acts bigger than he is, like some kind of maligned celebrity, but he is simply hiding from the reality that simply existing is what most of us will have to settle for. He’s also hiding from the unpalatable: that such a state of affairs is better than the life he is currently leading, but which he cannot bring himself to deviate from.
Lastly, I want to talk about folk music as a theme, since it is at the very heart of what Inside Llewyn Davis is trying to pull off. Folk is a very special genre of music, one that is accompanied with a large share of emotional investment from the performer(s) using some very simple tools, in many cases just a simple guitar, and sometimes even less than that. It is a kind of music that can make the listener feel so much, a power that is simply not shared by other forms of artistic expression. Never old and yet never new either, folk has a hypnotic effect in Inside Llewyn Davis, upon the audience watching and on the characters participating.
For characters like Davis, folk is all and everything. He is a man hypnotised by its power and the glory it almost seems to indicate, like a drug addict way past the point of sobriety. It is more than just the music itself, although that is addictive enough. No, it is the locations, the fame, even the most small kind that comes with being a big fish in a relatively small circle. Davis can live out his dreams with folk, and only with folk. And, alas, only so far. He seems miserable doing it by the end of the film, like a junkie who can’t find a high anymore.
Other people are less dependent on the music but still find themselves connected inherently with it. Characters like Jim, Jean and few others sing out their emotions and feelings with folk, as much with their words as they do with their fingers. Characters that lack any kind of musical ability themselves (or, at least, display none in Inside Llewyn Davis) are still moved by it without being chained to it, not least F. Murray Abrahams producer. Folk has a hold over all of them, but to nowhere the kind of extent that it does with Llewyn Davis.
For that character, it is a seductive destructive force. His life is in tatters when the credits roll, he has let so many opportunities pass him by. And it is all for that melody, those simple guitar riffs and oh so simple lyrics. It is impossible to watch a film like Inside Llewyn Davis and not be struck by the majestic way in which the chief musical genre of the production appears to inspire, enliven, embody and define so many people.
A conclusion approaches. Far more people than I seem to be enraptured by Inside Llewyn Davis, not sharing my opinions on the structure of the narrative or the confused nature of the plot. I simply don’t see it. While elements of Inside Llewyn Davis raise it up and far prevent it from being a total failure in my eyes, I simply do not see what others are seeing. If I was being cynical, I would say that the identity of the directors might be influencing some opinions, rather than the quality of what is actually on display.
All that is required is less of a fixation on the inspiration for the film – in this case, the music – and more on decent story-telling, especially in terms of structured narrative and the unenviable problem of conclusion making. Make us actually want something good to happen for Davis by presenting him more as someone to root for, even just a little, even if he never gets what he wants. Give some characters more time to make their mark and better use the actors and actresses confined to bit parts. Do not be interested in making a film that seems deep and clever if you have to sacrifice a storyline that the audience can follow without unnecessary difficulty. With those things accomplished, Inside Llewyn Davis would have been a far better experience. As it is, I feel that I can only half-recommend it, as an auditory experience more than anything.
Inside Llewyn Davis is ultimately a very frustrating film for me. There are the portents of real greatness there: a good script, a great visual style, some occasional moments of story-telling wonderment and some excellent musical choices. But the directionless nature of the production (especially in the last half hour), the random style of the narrative and the off putting nature of the main character all conspire to drag it down a few notches, and to perhaps justify the lack of Oscar nominations. The Coen Brothers have done better in the past, and I expect they will do better in the future.
(All images are copyright of CBS Films and StudioCanal).