“What are you doing?” is the graffito scrawled on the partition of a toilet stall in a rest stop somewhere on the road between New York and Chicago. This question is confounding enough to most of us, but ever more so to Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer in 1961. His career is going nowhere, he has no home of his own, he might have impregnated his best friend’s wife, and he lost another friends’ cat.
As played very well by Oscar Isaac in Joel and Ethan Coen’s film, Inside Llewyn Davis, this character is not offered a sunny redemption. In fact, this film is consistently daring, declining at almost every turn to transform into a standard Hollywood film. Part of me kept waiting for Davis to be discovered, but I was in good hands–the Coens wouldn’t let me down. At one point, Davis passes the exit for Akron, Ohio. In a lesser film he would taken that exit.
As per usual with the Coens, Inside Llewyn Davis is a dramatic comedy, or a comic drama. They start with a character who is almost thoroughly unpleasant. Davis is a talented singer, but a lousy human being. He is rude and brutally honest, lacking in almost all social graces. One of my only criticisms of the film is that he is so obnoxious that it’s hard to believe he has as many friends in the film as shown. The possible mother of his child, as played by Carey Mulligan, uses the word “asshole” in almost every other breath about him, so we wonder how he convinced her to sleep with him in the first place.
But if Davis is disagreeable, he is also endlessly fascinating. He moves from the apartment of a professor friend on the upper West side (he is referred to by the professor as “our folksinger friend”), managing to accidentally let loose their cat. With feline in tow, he makes his way to Mulligan’s apartment, where she lives and works with Justin Timberlake. He is so shameless that he asks to borrow money from Timberlake for Mulligan’s abortion (though, of course, Timberlake doesn’t know who the woman is).
Hearing about an agent in Chicago, Davis splits the cost of a trip with a grotesque jazz musician, John Goodman, and his laconic driver, Garret Hedlund. This is most Coen-esque part of the movie, full of acid-dipped dialogue and an otherworldly performance by Goodman. It both says nothing about the film and everything, a kind of typical Coen film in miniature.
The boldest move may be that the film is really about failure, a thing that most Americans don’t want to think about. Davis is reeling from the suicide of his partner, who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge (Goodman says that the Brooklyn Bridge would have been more appropriate). Davis misses him, but at times almost seems to envy him. His downward spiral is both pathetic and justified. He turns down royalties on a song that becomes a hit, and turns his nose up at becoming one of Peter, Paul, and Mary (folk fans will recognize F. Murray Abraham’s Bud Grossman as Albert Grossman, the man who put that trio together). He bites the hands that feed him, and heckles performers in the very club he plays at.
Yet his failure is poetic, as if he were Odysseus, at the fate of the Gods. In a not-so-subtle gesture, the cat that Davis carries around is named Ulysses. That cat could be seen as a metaphor for the shred of decency that Davis may possess, but instead it’s a metaphor for is ineffectualness, his complete failure as human being.
So a movie about failure may not be the feel-good movie of the year, but it’s done nothing but grow on me since I’ve seen it. Davis, a fine singer, is perfect in the role. I liked Mulligan, and was glad she was given a scene late in the film where she wasn’t spitting fire. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is astonishing, both for the smoky nightclub scenes and the harsh lighting of a diner somewhere on in the Midwest.
The film is based somewhat on Dave Van Ronk (check out the cover of Inside Dave Van Ronk–it’s the exact same as Davis’), but apparently Van Ronk was well liked. It is pointedly not about Bob Dylan, as the last scene of the film shows.
This may not be as great a film by the Coens as Fargo or No Country For Old Men, but it’s among their best. It has their typical flourishes of bizarre humor–one of the biggest laugh lines is a woman holding up a cat, screaming, “Where is his scrotum?”
My grade for Inside Llewyn Davis: A-.