After watching the Coen Brothers’ newest opus, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” I can’t help but feel like I just finished staring at an abstract painting OR read through a book of existential poetry. I appreciate it for the sheer craftsmanship and the beauty of what I can actually see teetering on the surface level.
That being said, I KNOW for a fact that I’m missing part of the interpretive meaning behind the brushstrokes, the words, or in this case, the images. I KNOW that every single frame of each scene has a reason behind it. I KNOW that when the credits finally roll and the final package has been wrapped up, so to speak, it’s not exactly wrapped up nicely… and it certainly lacks that great, big, shiny bow which usually sits on top.
In other words, I KNOW that “Inside Llewyn Davis” has a deep meaning behind its soulful imagery, I just don’t KNOW what it is exactly.
And that’s the fun part about sitting down and soaking in the contents of a film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen: everyone gets something different to take home with them. It’s like those birthday grab bags you got when you were little. You know, the ones that were handed to you on your way out the door of your buddy’s birthday party. Every kid ended up with a different “special” toy. It wasn’t always the one you wanted, but I digress. It wasn’t exactly personalized when you first laid eyes on it either, but eventually that little piece of plastic became “yours” and “yours alone.”
The actual storyline from “Inside Llewyn Davis” is not really a story at all. In actuality, it’s laid out more like a song. It has a beginning, a
middle and an end, with certain sections repeating themselves during the journey, but when the journey comes to a supposed end, the whole thing repeats itself again. It’s like life on an infinite loop; sort of like “Groundhog Day” with a beatnik flair, a guitar in one hand, and a thumb outstretched and set for hitchhiking on the other.
This Coen Brothers’ film is reminiscent of so many other Coen films, in that it involves a lost soul searching for deeper meaning in their life; the quest for a higher plane of consciousness, if you will. And just like so many other Coen Brothers’ films, these characters usually have no idea they are on this particular quest, but they ARE just the same — involuntary travelers on the highway of awareness.
Just like The Dude (“The Big Lebowski“), Larry Gopnik (“A Serious Man”“Fargo”), Marge Gunderson (“Fargo”), Ed Crane (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”) and The Soggy Bottom Boys (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?“) before him, Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac in a breakout role) joins a fraternity of man and women who are simply “existing” — going about their business on a daily basis, trying to make life work, but instead, life happens to them… whether they want it to or not.
The major difference in Llewyn is that he is actually trying to become something more. He wants to do more than “exist,” which is evident after a conversation he has with his aptly-named sister Joy (Jeanine Seralles).
“Our father existed,” he tells her.
“Our father existed?,” she angrily shoots back. “Our father EXISTED!?!,” she screams louder this time.
Llewyn’s contempt for society, and the squares that live within it, has been the fuel that has always motivated his music — the fire that keeps his guitar out of the case and in his hands. However, by the time we catch up with Llewyn, his music has put him exactly where he doesn’t want to be — sleeping on his former professor’s couch with an orange cat staring him in the face.
Llewyn leaves a thank you note and makes his way out the apartment door, but the cat slips past his shuffling feet and gets loose. Llewyn
chases the cat, but in doing so inadvertently locks the apartment door behind him. Since he has no key to the place, he now must make the journey (there’s that word again) on the subway back to Greenwich Village with his guitar under one arm and this stowaway cat under the other.
Of course, the only reason he’s at his professor’s house in the first place is because he played a gig at the Gaslight Cafe “basket house” (which, in those days, was a gig you’d play where you kept the door money) and needed a place to stay. Another uninspired gig by Llewyn in his trek to become musically important in the unforgiving, pre- Dylan, New York City folk music scene in 1961. Finger-picking through variations of culturally-important songs, Llewyn obviously has talent. He just doesn’t have that same kind of connection with an audience he used to have, at least not since his two-man band released a record and unceremoniously split-up soon after.
Constantly surrounded by talented musicians, these singers and songwriters in Llewyn’s life are the backbone that drive this film. Carey Mulligan (in mega-bitch mode and for good reason), Justin Timberlake (complete with golly-gee attitude and a Jonas Venture, Jr. style beard), Stark Sands (who steals scenes with his hilariously pious nature) and Max Casella (the foulmouthed Gaslight owner) all play individuals that move in and out of Llewyn’s life. Or, is it the other way around? Hmmmh…
There’s one moment where Llewyn tries to call his professor about the lost cat and leaves a message with a secretary instead.
“Tell the professor that Llewyn has the cat,” he says.
“Tell the professor that Llewyn IS the cat,” the not-too-bright, female voice answers back.
“No, no, no, no. Tell the professor…,” and it goes on like this.
However, this one little Freudian slip of the tongue was not by accident. Is Llewyn’s soul somehow connected to the spirit of this cat, that goes from place-to-place and couch-to-couch, searching for his home?
Like I said, it’s like staring at a Jackson Pollock for an hour, walking away and bragging to people that you “get it.” No, you don’t. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I understand what the Coen Brothers were thinking while writing out the content of this film.
I do know that it’s about the 1960s folk music scene and a number of characters are based on true-to-life, genuine people. This includes Llewelyn himself, who’s character is based on little-known singer/songwriter Dave van Ronk. So much so, that one of van Ronk’s albums was entitled “Inside Dave van Ronk.” Not exactly a coincidence, at least I wouldn’t think it was. A lot of the film’s story was also taken from van Ronk’s posthumously published The Mayor of Macdougal Street“
I also know that the bleakness of the winter, in which the film takes place, represents one of the antagonists in this narrative. Llewyn’s ability to stay warm, especially in the later section of the film when it transforms from a urban landscape movie to a road trip picture, as Llewyn accompanies a pair of gentleman to a gig in Chicago.
This segment introduces the audience to the devilish character of Roland Turner, a fire-breathing dragon of a man played by who else but Coen Brothers’ vet John Goodman (whom the part was specifically written for), who walks with two canes, is constantly nodding-out in the back seat of the car (get the picture?), but still manages to wake up intermittently to berate Llewelyn and his choice of music career and feline companion.
Turner is the second antagonist in the film, a roadblock placed in Llewelyn’s way to keep him from reaching his goal.
Eventually, Llewelyn is able to sneak around the blockade that Turner’s poison tongue has put in his way and escape captivity while Turner can’t outrun his own demons (get the picture?). Eventually, Llewyn is able to reach his goal — a goal he had no idea existed until the idea presented itself (sound familiar?) — but a goal nonetheless.
But that’s what life does. Just when you think you have it figured out, it throws you a curveball… or a runaway cat… or a punch in the face from a shadowy stranger to jar you back into reality.
Packaged with a killer soundtrack (arranged by Coen Brothers vet T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons) and laced with songs actually performed live on-camera by its talented cast (pop star Timberlake and Broadway star Sands truly stand out), “Inside Llewelyn Davis” is a film that is exactly like the folk songs that echo throughout — an unapologetic glimpse into the life of a starving artist and the couches he sleeps on.
Nevertheless, the film wouldn’t “exist” without multi-talented renaissance man Isaac, who shines in every scene he’s in, which is EVERY SINGLE frame of the movie, by the way. It doesn’t matter whether he’s singing his heart out for a record exec, playing a tune for his catatonic father in a nursing home, or simply staring off into space while sitting in a subway seat, Isaacs’ charisma leaps off the screen and lands in your
…much like a cat would.
Oh, those Coen Brothers. Why do they have to be so damn smart and talented and mysterious?
And why, when they make me feel so dumb and uninformed, do I keep coming back for more?
Because it’s worth it, that’s why.