Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) — Image via insidellewyndavis.com

Inside Llewyn Davis

Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen (2013)

In Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), the title character (Oscar Isaac), a folksinger in the early 60s Greenwich Village scene, seems to have ninety-nine problems; and an errant orange kitty named Ulysses is most certainly one.

To be fair, Ulysses’ penchant for escaping through open doors and windows is probably not the most dire of Llewyn’s problems, but it just might be the most cinematically compelling one, as some of the film’s best scenes feature a sweetly aimless Llewyn traversing New York City streets and subways with cat in tow. Throughout the film, Ulysses and Llewyn are posed as fellow travelers who move from couch to couch, street to street, borough to borough, and state to state with no larger goal in mind than to keep moving. Indeed, the question of what might happen if one were to stop is an ominous one, and the film poses many possibilities, such as senility, war, artistic stagnation, suicide, or just becoming a square — something that, in the world of the film, might be the worst possible outcome.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) — Image via insidellewyndavis.comRather than face the many perils that come with a rooted sense of purpose, Llewyn and Ulysses choose to wander. Sometimes their journeys are mildly pleasing, and sometimes they are a bit of a bummer, but in a manner that will no doubt be familiar to fans of the Coen brothers, there is no real melodrama, no intense or prolonged emotional extremes, but rather a world in which people simply exist (a word Llewyn uses to explain his senile and incontinent father, but something that all characters in the film seem to be doing) with all the frustration, discovery, numbness, and inadvertent poignancy that this involves.

Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography further illustrates the importance of forever forging ahead without taking too much time to ponder the past, with his many shots from the driver’s perspective featuring open highway in a variety of weather conditions and times of day and night. It is necessary, the film suggests, to keep driving: through sunshine, through rain, through snow, and with a rotating group of people who are willing to invite you into their lives, their cars, their beds, or their apartments, at least for a little while. The fact that, often times, the route ahead is fairly hard to see compounds the fearful uncertainty of a future that can be neither known nor avoided.

This theme of imperative journeying is further emphasized when, near the end of the film, Llewyn walks past a cinema and sees a poster for Disney’s The Incredible Journey (1963), a story about two dogs and a cat traversing many miles to make it home after their owners lose them while on vacation. Although the film is apparently based on a true story, it is still a Disney film, and has the corresponding happy ending. Llewyn Davis is also a character loosely based on a real person, Dave Van Ronk, a contributor to the early Village folk scene and an influence on Bob Dylan; however, unlike its Disney parallel, Llewyn’s journey is not particularly incredible, nor does it end neatly with everyone being in their proper place.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) — Image via insidellewyndavis.comOf course, if the film suggests that constant movement is preferable to dwelling on one’s problems at the risk of being consumed by them, it does not follow that Llewyn’s life-in-motion is a carefree one. Although it appears that he is able to find fairly steady work, the gigs he plays don’t really pay, especially since his musical partner, Mike, committed suicide. As a result, Llewyn is forced to sing backup on his pal Jim’s (Justin Timberlake) single, a poppy ditty about the anxieties of space travel (it’s 1961, after all). While he’s scraping together money to live on by playing music he doesn’t want to play, Llewyn’s manager, Mel (Jerry Grayson), equivocates on sales numbers, withholds earnings (if there are any), and claims to have sent copies of Llewyn’s record to club owners across the country, but no booking results follow. Among these club owners is Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), owner of Gate of Horn in Chicago, who claims, when Llewyn shows up at his office, that he has never heard of Llewyn or his music. After hearing Llewyn perform, Bud tells him that there is little money in the music he plays, and that he should reunite with his partner, something Llewyn clearly cannot do.

Personally, Llewyn isn’t fairing much better. He is chastised by his sister, who seems to think he should be living more responsibly (although she’s vague on the details), depressed by his aging father, and abused by a recently pregnant Jean (Jim’s wife, played by Carey Mulligan), who tells Llewyn that he might be the father. While securing an abortion for Jean, Llewyn learns that a woman he had a relationship with several years ago never terminated a pregnancy that they had both agreed would not go to term. The child now lives in Akron, Ohio, which Llewyn passes, but does not stop at, on his way home from his meeting with Grossman in Chicago. Llewyn’s brief indecisiveness provides a powerful moment in the film, in which many viewers no doubt wish that Llewyn had made a different choice while also realizing that, had he stopped in Akron and found his child, the results would likely have been, at best, disorienting and, at worst, disastrous. Once more, we are reminded that the road ahead is where one must take refuge. Given the detours the film suggests are possible, it isn’t surprising that Llewyn fears what might happen if he strays from the path in front of him.

Llewyn’s penchant for not exactly seizing the present (as this would imply passion that exists only in his music) but rather letting the present engulf him, gives the viewer the feeling that they are watching a lot of random, disconnected, trivial things happen to Llewyn, which is probably how most of our lives, if put on film, would look. The idea of bouncing from place to place and from person to person without any overarching narrative or unifying meaning is one that fans of the Coen brothers are used to encountering. Llewyn’s drifting, as well as his rejection of other people’s desires to interpret his experiences, evokes the sense of human futility present in the Coens’ A Serious Man (2009), in which mathematics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbard) struggles to salvage the wreckage of his failing marriage and stunted career only to be diagnosed with an illness that will likely end his life. One is also reminded of the end of Burn After Reading (2008), when Gardner Chubb (J.K. Simmons), a CIA higher-up investigating the intricacies of the crimes that comprise the film, asks his underling, Palmer (David Rasche), what they’ve learned while on the case. When Palmer answers that he doesn’t know, Chubb replies: “I don’t fucking know either. I guess we learned not to do it again…although I’m fucked if I know what we did.” The fact that life sometimes doesn’t provide lessons or instill wisdom — that it is often banal, pointless, and absurd — is a reality the Coens are quite at home depicting. That the stringing together of seemingly meaningless occurrences still feels intensely meaningful is a testament both to their skill as writers and filmmakers and to the actors’ ability to be understated without sacrificing emotional engagement.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) — Image via insidellewyndavis.comGiven the film’s resistance to overly tidy coherence, it should come as no surprise that it does not take a hard stand on whether or not an artist should compromise their artistic vision for financial gain, a question the Coens themselves have no doubt had to confront numerous times since their first film, Blood Simple (1984), gained critical acclaim while grossing less than two million dollars. Indeed, while “lesser” or more commercial artists such as Jim, Jean, and Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) are gently mocked by the film, Llewyn, even with his clear preference for less commercially viable music, is not really depicted as any nobler than those who are making mainstream art. Similarly, just as devotion to counterculture does not confer happiness, nor does the success that comes with making financially successful art, as we see with Roland Turner (John Goodman), a jazz musician who is successful enough to supply himself with fancy suits, a chauffeur (Garrett Hedlund), and a steady stream of heroin but who does not live a substantially better life than Llewyn, who can’t afford a winter coat and spends his nights on the couches of friends. There is little room for either occupational or artistic dogma in the film, especially when Llewyn, who claims early in the film that Jim and Jean are “careerists,” attempts to ship back out with the Merchant Marine after Grossman tells him he doesn’t have what it takes to be a solo artist, thus puncturing any illusions the audience may have had regarding Llewyn’s willingness to live monastically in order to make the art he wants to make.

When an inability to locate his Merchant Marine license makes Llewyn decide (if it can be called anything as deliberate as a decision) to play another gig at The Gaslight Café, he ends his set by telling the audience “that’s all I got.” There is a fatigued sense of finality about his tone that makes the viewer wonder if Llewyn is done barreling ahead into whatever the next thing might be — if perhaps, even with the risks involved, he will begin allowing detours to enter his life, not because these detours will make his life more meaningful or less futile, but simply because he is, in his words, “tired.”

Compounding Llewyn’s suspicion that his many years spent playing music will not lead to a future that is in any way more livable than his life would be had he not devoted himself to his art, right after Llewyn finishes his set, a young Bob Dylan takes the stage. As Dylan begins singing, Llewyn is lured into an alley outside the club and beaten by the husband of a performer he had heckled the night before. Watching Llewyn get pummeled with Dylan’s distinctive caterwauling in the background paints a clear picture: Llewyn’s life will likely continue to consist of the types of beatings he is currently receiving. It will not be a life filled with the opportunities, the successes, or the payoffs that the young Dylan has ahead of him. However, given the fact that the film seems to privilege the journey over the destination, we are likely meant to see a certain bedraggled nobility in Llewyn’s ability to live through one beating in order to wake up to face another. It’s not fun, of course, but it might also be all that one can hope for in this life. Not everyone can be Bob Dylan, after all, and the stories of those whose dreams are repeatedly derailed, dusted off, pursued, forgotten about, injured, found, abandoned, and revived are probably, ultimately, more compelling than your standard tale of fame and fortune.

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.

One thought on “Inside Llewyn Davis”

  1. You did a good job in your review although someone who has not seen the movie should gets spoiler alert. Your point that we can’t all be Bob Dylan is a good one and to me shows how far the movie falls short. I get what they are saying: Here’s a guy who isn’t going to make it and he’s right next to pure stardom, who shows nothing more than he, from the movie’s POV. But still the movie doesn’t explore this very real reality of not making it despite, talent and drive and sort of being in the right place and right time. And oh btw what was up with the beating in the beginning and the end, I don’t think the loop works at all.

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