And so we come to the finale of the Coen season (until Hail Caesar comes out here at the end oft the week), with a semi-inexplicable, bleak, winter film: Inside Llewyn Davis.
Key question given the opening and closing scenes: is it an actual time-loop, or is Llewyn just making the same old bad decisions time and again? And does it actually matter?
You don’t want to go anywhere, and that’s why the same shit’s going to keep happening to you, because you want it to.
Answer, probably not, but for what it’s worth I think that whichever it is, Llewyn looks like he may be ready to emerge from it at the end of the film.
The Coen Brothers generally don’t have a lot of time for self-involvement, I think. You can see it most clearly in the way that they mock Ulysses in O Brother Where Art Thou, or pretty much everyone in Burn After Reading and Intolerable Cruelty (at least, until Miles and Marilyn start to fall for each other), and – perhaps the strongest parallel to this film – Barton in Barton Fink. For the majority of the film Llewyn Davis is incredibly self-involved as he tries to make it through his days without thinking about anything but the next thing that’s going to keep him alive and in business as a musician. They don’t really mock him – but they’re also don’t scrimp on showing his asshole-ery.
That said, they are fairly empathetic here. Essentially, I think, Llewyn’s either suffering from or on the edge of depression, but in complete denial about it.
It’s why when Jean says, ‘Don’t you ever think about the future at all?’ he lashes out sarcastically, because no, of course he doesn’t, what would be the point of that, he wasn’t even prepared for winter with coat and shoes. It’s why he responds as he does when Lilian Gorfein starts singing with him at the dinner party – which isn’t about music, it’s about the fact that Mike, his former partner, committed suicide, and no one should be singing his part.
What? Quit? Merchant Marines again? Just exist?
At this stage, when he’s fighting with his sister about his life, Llewyn’s in denial about his state of being, because – essentially – he is just existing at the moment. He’s not really engaging properly with his life. He wants to play music, because that is both his job and his art, but the tension between those two things is confusing him terribly. He refers to music as his job at the Gorfeins, but he berates Jean for being careerist with her art and mocks Troy for being robotic for his discipline. At the moment he seems to be playing music because that’s what he does but he’s doing it missing something (Mike), and he’s not really comfortable playing for people where he he has to personally connect with the people (he doesn’t really have to connect with the audience in the Gaslight, or his father who isn’t present) – he is so clearly uncomfortable playing for Grossman and for the Gorfeins – and Grossman points that out to him. He doesn’t want Jim and Jean’s life – or the music Jim makes for money – he doesn’t want Troy’s approach either, channelling everything into perfectly pitched songs. Equally he doesn’t want to end up as cantankerous as the jazzman Ronald Turner, or as pointless as Johnny Five (who reminds me of someone who once said in my hearing, ‘My art was just becoming so conceptual that it was like, not there’). And he doesn’t want to throw himself off the George Washington Bridge.
Perhaps the cat saves him, because he actually has to try and keep hold of it and keep it safe. His lowest point is that period between leaving the cat in the car on the highway on the way to Chicago and hitting a cat (the cat?) on the highway on the way back to New York, having been reached a stalemate with Bud Grossman at the Gate of Horn.
And from here things start to pick up a little. You can see him start to work his way out when he decides that maybe, if he is just going to exist, then the Merchant Marines might be better than music, because it will hurt less. At least he’s doing something vaguely proactive at this point. He’s doing the wrong thing though – going backwards, rather than forwards – and whatever fates there are in this film (there are always fates in a Coen movie) prevent it from happening. Llewyn might feel like this is his lowest point because the world won’t let him make a change, but I think that the fact that he’s already decided that there has to be a change means he’s started to re-engage with his life – and suddenly he isn’t fighting with absolutely everything any more.
He goes back to Jim and Jean’s to leave his things in their apartment and actually has an honest conversation with Jean, as she offers him another shot at the Gaslight.
I’m tired. I thought I just needed a night’s sleep but it’s more than that.
Then he goes back to the Gorfeins, where he and Lilian apologise to each other – even if he doesn’t really quite get why she’s apologising, she does and it matters – and the cat, Ulysses returns home. He heads down to the Village, pausing in front of The Incredible Journey poster, with it’s tagline, ‘Only Instinct to Guide Them.’ Llewyn’s instinct has served him pretty badly so far in the film, but is it going change?
Finally, as the first scene loops in the last, Llewyn adds a second song to his Gaslight set, Fare Thee Well, which he used to sing with Mike (and which has been playing over a lot of the film) – but solo this time. Even though he still goes out back and gets beaten up again, it feels like Llewyn Davis is breaking out of his own head, saying, ‘Au Revoir’ to – something…
- Empty Roads? Empty roads, empty halls, empty alleys, in which Llewyn finds himself facing a choice of directions, or a series of dead ends.
- Terrifyingly bright daylight? No. Even though there are some dry winter scenes, nearly all of the film exists in a dim register, almost in black and white.
- Incredible Carter Burwell score? No. We are back in T-Bone Burnett curated soundtrack-land. It is incredible though.
- Very realistic violence? Yeah, I guess. There’s very little violence in this film, but the punching is good and realistic
- Extremely black lines delivered straight? This is early 1961, not long before US engagement in Vietnam ramped up.
Troy: Armaments are not my thing, i don’t even approve of war toys
Llewyn: Is it a career?
Troy: No, no. I get out in a few months. Bud Grossman has expressed interest in representing me.
I don’t think he gets out…
- An obsession with odd hair? No.
And pretty great female leads? Ish. Cary Mulligan as Jean looks like an angel, sings like an angel, and is absolutely not an angel. She seems, for most of the film, to be something of a shrew, angrily persecuting Llewyn for being a part of one of her own mistakes – even though you can understand her frustration with him too – and then comes dangerously close to being his saving angel by getting him back on stage at the Gaslight. But Mulligan is talented enough that you can see more of her than both of these things in what is really a tiny role in a film that is more about one character than any other Coen brothers film – even Barton Fink.
Previously: True Grit