I like movies whose plots meander. I like movies whose plots are non-existent, films that are more experimental in their narrative approach. But what’s most frustrating is when a movie loses sight of its thematic purpose, one that floats along, teasing the audience with suggestions of a bigger picture without delivering anything as bold and definitive. Inside Llewyn Davis is that kind of movie.
That sense of floating defines the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a Greenwich Village folk singer circa 1961. He was once part of a folk duo, but his partner committed suicide some time in the past and Davis is still bitter and aggrieved over it. He scrapes by on his share of the door on nights when he plays gigs at local coffee shops. Otherwise, he slums along on the kindness of others, crashing on their couches night after night.
One such friend is Jean (Carey Mulligan), who’s got sad eyes, a perma-frown and who upturns Llewyn’s world when she reveals she’s pregnant with his child. Much of the time, Jean berates and belittles Llewyn, says he’s a loser, a good-for-nothing. She says she wants an abortion. So it’s up to Llewyn to scrape together the money for it. Underneath her critical nature, though, we sense that Jean really cares for him, but his lack of gusto and direction frustrates her, breaks her heart; her insults and passive-aggressive interactions with him are Jean’s ways of denying her deeper feelings.
When Jean’s current boyfriend, Jim (Justin Timberlake), a chipper, go-getting folk musician on the brink of big success, enlists Llewyn in a song session, the latter finds the way to raise the money that Jean needs. This session is the film’s bright spot, a change from the doldrums that characterize the rest of the story, as Jim leads Llewen and backup singer Al (Stark Sands, who’s brilliant) in a rendition of “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an inspired and hilarious riff on the Kennedy-inspired folk songs from that era. This is the Coens, collaborating with their brilliant music producer T. Bone Burnett, working in peak absurdist form.
It’s following this session, when Illewyn takes the cash he earned to a doctor to arrange for Jean’s abortion that Llewyn Davis registers one of its more emotionally resonant heartbreaks: The doctor tells him that Jean’s abortion will be free because a previous girlfriend, also pregnant by Llewyn, decided to keep her child and, unbeknownst to Illewyn, moved back to Akron. The emptiness and worthlessness Illewn feels at this moment haunts the rest of the film as he strikes out for Chicago to seek out a talent manager (F. Murray Abraham) and land himself a shot at success.
That trip to Chicago is the film’s centerpiece as Llewyn hits the road alongside the laconic, slightly menacing Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) behind the wheel and, slumped in the back seat, Roland Turner (John Goodman), a heroin-addicted jazz musician. When he’s not in a drugged stupor, Roland will chew your ear off with his rambling stories of his jazz exploits as Goodman goes on to steal the movie with his towering, grotesque portrayal. Hedlund, meanwhile, seems to be channelling Peter Stormare’s mute killer in Fargo (which I prefer to this rehash).
Indeed, much of this sequence seems lifted from earlier, more successful Coens brothers efforts. The oppressive gloom that hangs over the rest-stop diner evokes the interiors of that decrepit hotel in Barton Fink. Goodman’s over-the-top presence is itself a sight gag–one he completes with the use of canes for both his hands–in the vein of the offbeat fringe characters in the Coens’ best-known comedies. The Coens also trundle out the POV shots of the passing highway, illuminated by headlights, seen to more pressing narrative effect in Fargo. With the deep, menacing thuds on the soundtrack, the road itself becomes a sinister character here. But to what end?
We ask that question because we never get a clear enough picture of what Llewyn Davis is trying to say. The film has a frustrating, neither-here-nor-there quality. A portrait of an artist on the brink of realizing his own failure, a talent born ahead of this time and thus unappreciated, a man whose bottomed-out sense of self-worth (owing perhaps to a miserable relationship with this father) renders him incapable of success whether in his career or his relationships: Llewyn Davis seems to grasp at all of these ideas. What we know for sure is that Llewyn has dwindling faith in himself and his abilities, he’s principled to a fault, and, if things don’t turn around for him, he’s doomed to waste his life away. But that’s only the set-up to a story that the Coens decide not to see through.
Instead, we get beautiful images of a grey and unforgiving America and an ensemble of topnotch performances–Isaac, in particular, is completely convincing as a talented but discouraged man (his musical performances feel natural and lived-in) trying his best not to gamble away his ideals to the commercial machine.
There is also the matter of a recurring character of an orange tabby cat throughout the film, a pet belonging to Llewyn’s uptown friends, whom he accidentally lets out and must take care of. I haven’t spoken of it because I believe it’s part of the grand Coens tradition of red (orange, in this case) herrings. Its purpose is beyond me.
We scramble for meanings when a given film can’t decide what it wants to say. The Coens’ largely brilliant filmography (including their recent masterpiece A Serious Man) have earned them considerable mileage with fans, so, to some extent, Llewyn Davis coasts along on our good will. But as admirable and well-acted as Llewyn Davis is, it’s simply too airy and insubstantial a treatment of personal failure to make a lasting impression.
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Robin Bartlett, Jeanine Serralles