Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coens’ Melancholy and Luminous Ballad

Wavy Gravy (aka Hugh Mooney), the Hog Farm activist and musician, once said, “if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Wavy may have been on a lengthy acid trip, but the rest of us clearly remember the 60’s as an era of assassinations, civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, the beginnings of the feminist and gay movements, rural and urban communes, and of course sex, drugs and rock n’roll. However, there was an interregnum, approximately from 1960-62, before much of this ever took place. It’s this period and in Greenwich Village where the Coen Brothers have set their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis—a time when the great folk revival was in full bloom.

              Inside Llewyn Davis, however, has no particular interest in providing a depiction of that milieu’s ethos or everyday life. It offers a couple of establishing shots of Village streets, and we get to see Washington Square Park, Café Reggio, and the Gaslight, the coffee house where folk singers performed. But the texture and dynamic of the Village world of folk singers and bohemians–faux and genuine—is generally left unexplored. Social or documentary realism has never been central to the Coens’ aesthetic. They are satirists and fabulists, who also often like to construct or deconstruct very particular variations on traditional genres (e.g., Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing).

              Inside Llewyn Davis focuses on a favorite protagonist of the Coens—the character who confronts a world of trouble. In this respect Llewyn Davis is not that different from the always mellow unemployed slacker, “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges), in the extremely funny, cult-attracting The Big Lebowski (1988), who has to contend with pedophiles, pornographers, anarchists, and assorted other villains, or the mathematics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), in their very personal masterpiece A Serious Man (2009). Gopnick finds his life unraveling–among other troubles his marriage collapses, and he must confront an anonymous letter-writing campaign that may derail his chances for tenure. He seeks answers from rabbis who can offer only banalities for why all these Job-like sorrows have befallen him, and comes up with nothing, or is it nothingness? The Coens’ film strikingly renders a dark, comic/pathetic view of the human condition–suburban Jewish middle class style. The sea of troubles portrayed in these Coen Brothers’ films reminds one of Virginia Woolf’s comment, that “I read The Book of Job last night, God does not come off well.”

              Llewyn Davis, a folk singer from working-class Queens (affectingly performed by Oscar Isaac, who is in almost every scene), has his own share of troubles though the elements of black comedy and satire are more muted here than in A Serious Man. His singing partner has committed suicide, and he’s a man without a home or phone, couch surfing from apartment to apartment, dependent on the charity of friends and acquaintances.

              The one close but extremely difficult relationship Llewyn has is with Jean (Cary Mulligan), the attractive wife and singing partner of Llewyn’s friend Jim, played by Justin Timberlake. Jean claims to be pregnant with Llewyn’s child (though she has had sex with Jim and other men), and treats him to a furious outpouring of profane and contemptuous insults: “Asshole, you are a shit;” “King Midas’s idiot brother;” and “Your life is going nowhere, you wreck everything you touch.” Clearly, some passionate feeling and mutual concern exists between them, but it’s a volatile and unequal mixture of love and hate, much of it brought on by their having very different perspectives on life. Her aim is to pursue a career singing pop folk music à la Peter, Paul and Mary and have a stable domestic life in the suburbs, while Llewyn views her as a sell-out to all the forces and values he despises.

              In addition, he clashes with his conventional, hard working sister in Queens, who has little understanding of or sympathy for his travails as an artist, and alienates her by cursing and saying critical things about their father, a retired merchant seaman.

              Obviously, nothing works out for Llewyn—a man who blunders about with little consciousness of other people. His record producer tries to avoid paying him the few dollars he makes from his album, the eponymously titled “Inside Llewyn Davis.” He has acquaintances, but is essentially a sullen, harsh, and generally unlikable loner.

              Llewyn throws a tantrum at an academic Columbia University dinner party (the Coens’ humorously caricaturing the stiffness and pomposity of the guests) given by his caring hosts–the Gorfeins. But though he behaves insensitively, the Coens empathize with Lleywn’s frustration at being turned into a performer and pet bohemian for the pleasure of academics, who live comfortable lives.  

              He peevishly attacks a very polite, pleasant fellow folk singer, Troy Nelson (modeled after Tom Paxton), who is also crashing at Jean and Jim’s, for serving in the Army. He’s equally and somewhat justifiably disdainful of his friend Jim’s banal, novelty pop song “Please, Please, Mr. Kennedy,” though it gives him a bit of a payday.

       However, when Llewyn performs folk music one feels a purity and honesty that don’t find expression in the rest of his life. The very first scene of the film consists of close-ups of Llewyn soulfully singing “Hang me, Oh hang me,” shot with great fluidity as the camera captures the atmosphere of the Gaslight from various angles—overheads, point of view shots, etc. The song is closely associated with Dave Van Ronk, whose autobiographical memoir of those early days of the folk revival, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, was the inspiration for the Coen brothers’ script, and who can be heard singing “Green, Green Rocky Road” behind the final credits.

     The gravelly-voiced Van Ronk was a more social and convivial (he drank heavily), politically committed, and successful performer than Llewyn. But like LLewyn he sang blues and old ballads, and was described as earnest to a fault, intelligent and guileless, and unwilling to compromise his integrity. A few of the details of his life are used in the film but they are very totally different people. Still, a quote from Van Ronk is applicable to Llewyn: “Here’s to the heart that’s wise enough to know where it’s better off broken.”

       In a set piece Llewyn goes on a harrowing road trip to Chicago. His fellow riders in the car on the trip are an odious druggie jazz musician Roland Turner (an over the top performance by John Goodman—a Coen favorite) and his driver, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund)—an Orlofsky-reading, chain-smoking, monosyllabic figure–somewhat modeled after the Beats’ famous muse Neal Cassady. Turner’s monologues can become a bit tedious, but he is a distinctively bizarre character as he sneeringly conveys the jazz hipster’s utter disdain for folk music.

       Upon reaching a desolate Chicago, in the throes of a bitter winter, Llewyn gets to perform a rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane” for a dour Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), the manager of the famous Gate of Horn. Grossman is modeled after the celebrated manager of Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin, and the Band, Al Grossman. Exuding quiet authority, he listens intently but unemotionally to Llewyn singing and then delivers the final crushing verdict: “I don’t see any money in this.” The song is part of Llewyn’s repertoire, but it’s in his hapless character to choose something so somber and non-commercial when trying to impress a man who can give him a career boost. It’s a decisive moment in the film, feeling like a last chance for success that he has been unwilling to take.

      Llewyn is a fine singer, and is on the side of the angels when it comes to maintaining his artistic vision. But he’s self-defeating and incapable or unwilling to make life choices that promote his career or even sustain him from day to day. You can sense that the Coens sympathize with him. They truly respect him as an artist. But though they themselves are auteurs working out of a unique personal perspective, they are not averse to making films that can reach a mainstream audience.

   The only solid attachments Llewyn has are to his guitar and to an elusive orange tabby cat Llewyn feels responsible for after it escaped the Gorfein’s apartment. The cat is, on one level, the Coens’ hook to charm the audience and make the film somewhat more commercially viable. It’s also as hard for Llewyn to grasp hold of as everything else in his life. But also it serves as a vehicle to demonstrate that he has the capacity to be emotionally caring and responsible.

       One feels that the Coens don’t see making artistic concessions as the betrayal of one’s self like LLewyn does. Of course, their primary aesthetic mode is wry detachment, so they don’t fully risk themselves in their films, and Llewyn is a very different artist than they are. But though they depict him as an alienated, bitter, egocentric figure, he doesn’t turn off film audiences, because they provide him with enough vulnerability and humanity (more than most Coen brothers’ protagonists) to elicit some positive feeling. LLewyn emanates both pathos and failure in pursuit of his art, but there is an untainted and honest aspect to his quest that allows audiences to identify with him. And the Coens avoid portraying him as a buffoon, which they do at times to characters in other films.

The film concludes going full circle—the final scene turning out to be a repeat, with some additional material, of its opening scene (eternal recurrence?) —with Llewyn painfully going nowhere, lying in an alley after a beating by the irate husband of a folk singer he baited. In that scene, after Llewyn sings his set, we see Bob Dylan in silhouette singing at the Gaslight. Dylan is at the beginning of a career, launched that night by a laudatory review from the New York Times critic in attendance. Of course, he ultimately achieves all the success that Llewyn fails to realize. Dylan is an original and a genius, but he was always conscious of an audience and how to make it in the business. As he told Van Ronk: “Why don’t you give up blues? You do that, and I’ll produce an album on you; you can make a fortune.”

              What helps to make this almost plotless film so engaging is a mise-en-scene that captures city streets and clubs in muted color, and lighting that brings out the film’s dominant gloomy mood. Llewyn Davis also had the collaboration of the impeccable musical taste of T. Bone Burnett, whose previous work for the country music sound track on the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou became a best selling album, and is most likely to do the same for Inside Llewyn Davis. There are also constant comic touches—the cat, the inauthenticity of “authentic” folk singers, and a black comedy aspect to everything that goes wrong with LLewyn.              

       The Coens have made their most poignant, moving work, a film whose idiosyncratic quality never shouts at you, but quietly, subtly, and touchingly sneaks into your consciousness. It turns out to be a luminous and melancholy, but never tragic ballad of a gifted folk singer who is doomed to a life of failure. 


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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By Menachem Kein: War of Choice – The Real Story of Israel’s War against Hamas

By Rami G. Khouri: A Ceasefire Would Beckon Real Leaders to Act

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By Herbert J. Gans: Fixing Representative Democracy

By Kevin B. Anderson: The Althusserian Cul-de-Sac

By Philip Green: Reflections on Arendt

By Leonard Quart , Al Auster: Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coens’ Melancholy and Luminous Ballad

By Timothy Johnson: Camus and Bourdieu on Algeria

By Oengus MacNamara: Country Girl: A Memoir, by Edna O’Brien

By Peter N. Kirstein: Why Public Higher Education Should be Free: How to Decrease Cost and Increase Quality At American Universities, by Robert Samuels

By Jason Schulman: Peter Hudis, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism

By Kim Scipes: Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman, by Jeremy Adelman

By Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Review Essay: Never Let a Serious Crisis go to Waste, Philip Mirowski