2013 Academy Awards, 86th Annual Academy Awards, auteur theory, Barton Fink, Best Cinematography nominee, Best Sound Mixing nominee, Carey Mulligan, cats, cinema, Coen Brothers, couch-surfing, Ethan Coen, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, folk music, Garrett Hedlund, Greenwich Village, indie dramas, Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel Coen, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Llewyn Davis, Movies, musical numbers, New York City, Oscar Isaac, Roland Turner, set in the 1960's, snubbed at the Oscars, the Coen Brothers, unlikable protagonist, winter
There’s a very fine line between being a gruff, disagreeable, yet essentially human being and being a complete horse’s ass. On the one hand, you have a set of individuals who just don’t feel like towing the party line, the kind of folks who follow their own rules and don’t always have to have a plastic smile glued to their faces. These folks may be curt, short-fused, unapologetically honest and kind of a drag but, for the most part, they’re good people: someone else’s “theme song” isn’t necessarily noise, just different from our own. The world is full of unpleasant people who do lots of good deeds and are responsible for some very essential/beautiful/hilarious/moving things. On the other hand, however, some people really are just horses’ asses and there isn’t much more that can be said about them.
The question at the center of Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ latest film, is just what kind of an individual Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) really is: is he a gruff, unlikable, immensely talented artiste or is he just a spoiled-rotten horse’s ass? As with pretty much every Coen film since their debut, nothing here is ever as clear-cut as that, although Inside Llewyn Davis tends to be almost as obtuse as Barton Fink, which is no mean feat.
We’re first introduced to Llewyn, a New York folk singer, as he’s doing one of the two things he’s best at: singing his heart out at a small club. In short order, however, we’re introduced to Llewyn’s other talent, as a mysterious man kicks his ass in the parking lot for heckling during another performance. Even as he’s getting stomped, Llewyn is completely unrepentant: if he regrets anything, it’s probably that he didn’t get away quick enough. We then follow Llewyn on an epic journey of minimalism and aimless drifting as he couch surfs across Greenwich village, letting loose a beloved family pet here, bringing discord to a relationship there and never once wavering from his steadfast devotion to say it like he means it. Jean (Carey Mulligan), one half of a local folk “power” couple with Jim (Justin Timberlake) may be pregnant with Llewyn’s kid but she’d rather abort it than take the chance: “You’re a shit person and everything you touch turns to shit.” Jim gets Llewyn a gig with him in the studio, only for Llewyn to spend the whole time ridiculing the song and being a jerk: “I’m happy for the gig but who wrote this song?” Jim’s unhappy reply? “I did.”
Time and time again, Llewyn acts in the most selfish, self-serving ways possible, navigating through life as if it were a highway and his was the only car in sight. He talks shit about Al Cody (Adam Driver) during the studio session but still manages to ask him to crash on his couch. Not only does Llewyn let out the Gorfeins’ (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett) cat, he also explodes during a dinner, causing Mrs. Gorfein to burst out crying. Nonetheless, Llewyn still shows up on their doorstep later, looking for a place to stay. In any given situation, Llewyn does just what he wants to but then seems surprised when everybody reacts negatively.
As previously mentioned, however, there seems to be a lot more going on here than a simple look into the life of a jerk. For one thing, Inside Llewyn Davis is structured very much like a quest/road-movie, although the ultimate goal never seems quite clear. In some ways, the film reminded me of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, although the underlying connection of the latter to the Odyssey is much clearer than any classical allusions I can draw from the former. This is not to say that the Coens’ intention is muddy, necessarily, just that I wasn’t able to get it the first time around. There’s definitely something going on internally, especially once we learn that the Gorfein’s cat is named Ulysses, but my initial viewing wasn’t quite sufficient: as with all things Coen, I expect multiple viewings to help clear this up.
We also get the odd introduction of Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and Roland Turner (John Goodman), a beat poet and jazz musician, respectively, who embark on a short, ill-fated car trip with Llewyn. Goodman is absolutely amazing as the crass, boorish, Santeria-practicing, smack-shootin’ jazz musician but it’s a curious role and seems to serve a rather undefined purpose in the film. At first, I was inclined to think that this was a commentary on the inherent differences between jazz and folk during the early ’60s but that felt to reductive. I’m more inclined to think that Roland factors more prominently into the “real,” underlying story beneath Inside Llewyn Davis (I automatically think of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came but that could just be me).
There’s also the curious business of the beginning and end of the film, sections which seem to hint at some sort of deeper, almost symbolic meaning. By the end of the film, I was left wondering if, perhaps, this were some form of a purgatory, with Llewyn Davis doing eternal laps around the track as some sort of punishment for past deeds. Did the mysterious, ass-whuppin’ man in black represent some sort of cosmic retribution, the universe’s way of making sure that Llewyn earned some measure of comeuppance for his blatant disregard towards everyone else? Was this some way of saying that omnipresent negativity can only breed more negativity, leading Llewyn to wander in a maze of his own unpleasant creation? It honestly stumped me but I won’t admit defeat until I’ve had a little more time with it.
My confusion notwithstanding, Inside Llewyn Davis marks something of a return to form for the Coens (at least as far as I’m concerned) after the disappointment of Burn After Reading, A Serious Man and True Grit. This is a much simpler, quieter film than productions like Oh Brother and True Grit but it doesn’t have the restrained sense of tension inherent to early films like Blood Simple or Fargo, either. For me, this “slow-burn” zone is my favorite mode for the Coens, so watching this felt like the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, in a way. As usual, the ensemble cast is fantastic: like Woody Allen, the Coens have a natural gift with bringing out the best in actors and they have quite the group to work with here. As the titular “hero,” Oscar Issac is simply marvelous and was egregiously snubbed of a Best Actor nomination at this year’s Oscars. Mulligan and Timberlake, as Jean and Jim, are great, with Timberlake continuing to impress me with another simple but spot-on characterization. As previously mentioned, Goodman is a whirlwind of chaos and easily steals every inch of celluloid that he appears on.
Ironically, despite being denied several obvious Oscar nominations (Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Director, for three), Inside Llewyn Davis was nominated for a pair that I just couldn’t agree with: Best Sound Mixing and Best Cinematography. While the cinematography was good but nothing special, I actually found the sound mixing to be rather awful, with the kind of vast gulf between dialogue and music that mars many films/TV shows these days: I found myself riding my remote’s volume more than I liked and certainly more than should have been necessary in a film with “supposedly” exemplary sound mixing.
At the end of the day, due to my lifelong love of their films, it’s always a bit difficult for me to be truly subjective regarding any new Coen Brothers productions. Unlike certain filmmakers like Nicholas Winding Refn or Ben Wheatley, I don’t love every Coen film in their canon: in fact, there are a few that I actively dislike. Very few filmmakers besides the Coens, however, would make me repeatedly watch a film that I don’t care for in an attempt to get me to understand and appreciate it better. While Inside Llewyn Davis is nowhere near my least favorite Coen film (hands down, that would be True Grit), it’s also nowhere near my favorite Coen film (Blood Simple/The Big Lebowski would be the conjoined twin/winner here). I’m willing to wager that, given some time, I’ll understand and appreciate this a lot more. At the very least, I’ll never get tired of watching Roland bluster or Llewyn chase that darn cat all over town.