Thursday, December 5, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis: "Like King Midas's idiot brother"



A mesmerizing, haunted red herring of a movie, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is full of glancing blows and half-hidden truths. Every once in a while some kind of meaning or pattern emerges for just a brief shimmering second and then disappears from view, like the cats that keep slipping away from our lonely, dour protagonist. But if this beautiful film seems unnaturally elusive, there’s a good reason for that: The real story is happening somewhere else.


[Here there be spoilers, so tread at your own risk...]

When we first meet Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a talented but melancholy and abrasive singer on the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk music scene, he’s performing in front of a small, admiring crowd at the Gaslight Cafe. Later, outside the venue, a mysterious man in a Stetson accosts Llewyn and kicks the shit out of him. The Coens then cut to our hero as he wakes up the next morning in the apartment where he’s crashing, his friends’ cat perched on his chest. As he prepares to leave, Llewyn tries to keep the cat from escaping, and accidentally locks himself out of the apartment.

So, basically, our introduction to this guy involves him singing a beautiful song, being beaten, and saving a cat – a perfect triumvirate of Hollywood code for “good guy.” Except that Llewyn isn’t the nicest of guys. He antagonizes his friends, he scoffs at other musicians, he dismisses his family. Nor is he much of a businessman: He signs away his royalties on a potential hit record because of an immediate need for money. He has some semblance of what he might call integrity, but what others might call entitlement, or short-sightedness.

We all know people like this; we have all been this guy at various points in our lives; some of us still are. (To rearrange the words of the title, there's a little Llewyn Davis Inside all of us, sort of the way That Barton Fink Feeling was something we could all access.) Llewyn is a bit too serious about his art to ever truly sell out; whether he’s good enough to succeed without doing so isn’t a question the film dares to answer. With a lucky break here, a not-unlucky-break there, who knows what might have been? Speaking with Jean (Carey Mulligan), a fellow folkie whom he impregnated and who now hates his guts, Llewyn divides the world into “careerists” and “losers.” And he refuses to be a careerist, which basically leaves him with one option.

So, Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of the guy who didn’t make it. His whole journey, posited at first as one of the Coens’ patented Odyssey variations, is full of symbolic, ominous figures and situations….but they pointedly signify nothing. Take the cat, who escapes from Llewyn several times, and is abandoned by him at least twice later on. Near the end of the film, when he returns to New York, Llewyn revisits his friends’ apartment, and discovers that their cat has returned. Not only that, the cat’s name is Ulysses! And its nickname is Lou – which is the same name that a couple of other characters have accidentally called Llewyn over the course of the film. (“What does the ‘N’ stand for?” John Goodman’s decaying, contemptuous jazz musician asks him at one point.) As he walks to a gig at the end of the film, with things seemingly, finally looking up, Llewyn spies a poster for Disney’s animals-go-on-the-road flick The Incredible Journey. Is that even a slight, ironic smile we see on his lips?

Except that this is not his journey. Llewyn’s ordeal was not incredible. His name is not Lou, as he himself keeps reminding people. And the cat he’s been carting around for most of the film is not Ulysses, who ran away from him early on. It’s a nameless street cat Llewyn accidentally picked up back in New York, a cat we last saw limping into a frozen forest beside a snowbound highway. And that opening scene we saw earlier – with the strange man beating Llewyn -- was not the opening scene of this story; it was the finale. The whole film, it turns out, was a flashback winding its way back to this moment.

Importantly, there are a couple of very big differences in the way the Coens now re-present this final section of the film. For starters, they include one additional song that Llewyn sings before he leaves the stage: “Dink’s Song,” which includes the refrain, “Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well…”(Pointedly, it's a song Llewyn used to do with his now-dead partner.) Secondly, the Coens alter the sound mix, so that we now hear, filtering out of the Gaslight Café as Llewyn is beaten, the music of the act that followed his performance: It’s Bob Dylan, singing “Farewell,” a song with lyrics remarkably similar to the one Llewyn just wrapped. (“Oh it’s fare thee well, my darling true....”) These lyrics are also echoed in the final line of the film, a close-up Llewyn, badly beaten, whispering, “Au revoir.”

The film fades to black, and the Dylan song, victorious, plays over the end credits. Somewhere along the way, you figure Dylan has been on his own, significantly luckier trajectory – maybe like the Incredible Journey that Ulysses the cat must have been on. But we didn’t see that journey. We saw the other journey -- the one with some loser named Llewyn and a nameless, wounded cat. In many ways, that's the journey the rest of us are also on.




11 comments:

  1. Love the piece. Though your use of the word "flashback" makes me wonder if I didn't totally misinterpet the last portion of the movie. (It wouldn't be the first time.)

    As I read it, those events actually did happen twice, a narrative gambit it didn't seem too implausible for the Coens to pull. I thought this because of the subtle differences the second time around as well as the references back to the middle of the movie: Llewyn apologizing to the Gorfeins for his behavior at their dinner party, making especially sure the cat did not get out, talking to Jean about her abortion. I thought that the last performance and beating were just playing out again, or that Llewyn's life had looped back like a Möbius strip as if to underline the futility of it all.

    Your explanation makes sense and is certainly more intuitive. I'll have to keep it in mind when I rewatch the movie—and I will be rewatching this movie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The events didn't happen twice. It is the same scene.

      Delete
    2. I just walked out of the movie, and I do not think it was the same scene. He plays two songs in the final scene, as opposed to one song in the opening scene, and the way he "exits" the building is also different. I'm baffled by the whole thing, frankly. A good baffled, but baffled nonetheless. Can't wait to see it again.

      Delete
  2. Interesting take. To clarify: I think ONLY the opening scenes at the club are being repeated. Everything else is a flashback, and so it's all linear after he wakes up (sans any scars). So it makes sense that he would apologize to the Gorfeins. The only thing that seems to genuinely happen twice is his waking up with the cat on his chest.

    But a lot of this will only make sense to many of us if we see the film twice, so I think this kind of Mobius strip-like uncertainty is, on some level, intended.

    Also I think Carey Mulligan says something about how Llewyn is doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again. And this kind of endless loop quality is very much in keeping with that.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm closer to Bilge on which or what happened, but I think what is perfect is that it's kind of the ultimate vision of the Coens universe by repeating the scene. The first time you think the universe is cruel and indifferent, that one can't explain these events. The second time through, you realize, "No, you're the asshole. You deserve this." Which is kind of what separates the Coens heros from their fools - the fools: Macy in Fargo, Larry in A Serious Man, Barton Fink - think they are only Job, the punished man's whose fate goes on unpunished. Funny enough, its their most sympathetic heroes - The Dude, Thorton in Man Who Wasn't There, Marge - who have to often experience the most pain and suffering (within the worldview of the film), but because they accept it, they kind of move on from their adventure.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think the line of Mulligan's that you mention says it all, and ultimately, that much more is gained by the final scene being a different, if precisely similar, event than that which opened the film, than by supposing everything in-between is a long flashback, precisely because of this recursiveness. I think the waking-up-at-the-Gorfein's scene indicates this by being only very slightly different than the one that opened the film, before they go all-in at the Gaslight. But, hey, a little uncertainty has carried many a Coen brothers film, so it all gets very difficult to prove.

    Great piece, by the way. Hadn't considered the way the Coens signal typical "good guy" behavior, but it's very much in keeping with the balance they create between his sympathetic and despicable qualities. I'd also argue that, in spite of his talent, Llewyn isn't exactly a vital musical talent - he seems perfectly content, and says as much at the beginning, to rest on existing songs that might appeal to his specific audience, but there is some vagueness in what the Coens are getting at by using existing songs. It could be a matter of convenience, and some might be new to the characters in the film, but I think that their giving the closest thing they have to an original ("Please Mr. Kennedy") to the guy best positioned to find success (and played by Justin Timberlake no less) is somewhat telling. Thus, Llewyn's "catalogue" reflects as much a doing-just-enough-to-get-by attitude as a genuine yearning for artistic credibility, which it seems will always elude him.

    ReplyDelete
  5. If the club scenes were the only repeated ones, and the rest is a linear flashback, then why did Llewyn write a note to the Gorfeins saying "Sorry I was such a mess last night" before leaving (and accidentally letting the cat out)? The owner of the Gaslight tells Llewyn "boy you were some mess last night" (referring to his heckling of the old harpist) before he gets pummeled by her husband, and so he goes to sleep after the beating and repeats that line in the morning with his note.

    Then after his Odyssey, he sleeps at the Gorfeins again, wakes up, does not write a note, and leaves without letting the cat escape. He goes to the club, gets beat up, and so goes the Moebius strip -- like a vinyl record spinning around and around until it goes silent at the center.

    So yeah, I don't see how the entire-thing-is-a-flashback take works narratively. But to play Devil's Advocate -- the only evidence to me that it's a flashback (besides the fact that the opening and closing scenes are virtually identical) is that Llewyn is surprised when Jean tells him that the baby might not be his -- it could be Jim's too. When he's at the club the night he gets beat up at the end, he finds out the Gaslight owner fucked Jean too. So the fact that he didn't ask Jean if the baby could be that guy's as well means maybe he hasn't learned of her fucking him yet. Or it could be that he didn't believe the dude. Or that he didn't want to remind Jean of that. Or accuse her of sleeping around. So yeah, I'm talking myself into thinking he's just making the same mistakes over and over.

    Either way, it's pretty awesome. Loved this film.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My 2¢: The Gaslight owner says at one point he wants to fuck Jean. By the end of the movie, he says he's fucked her. So I'm guessing while Llewyn was in Chicago, Jean gave it up to the Gaslight guy so that she could get Llewyn a gig. But since she had already sung there, does that mean she had sex with him earlier on? Can only shrug.

      The ambiguity of the last scene being a different night from the opening scene, or being a different look at the same night, is obviously purposeful. My vote goes for the latter, but as is often the case with the Coens, we will never know and were never meant to know.

      Delete
    2. He was a mess pretty much all the time. The note doesn't have to be about the beating.

      Delete
  6. Could the whole thing have been a dream?

    ReplyDelete
  7. What a wonderful review! And I have to agree; he seems to sing all the wrong renditions of the right songs, is in all the right places at the wrong time, and even the cat he carries around is a spitting-image but alas a counterfeit of the great Ulysses (both in a Homeric and Joycean sense). Llewyn isn't just a failed folk singer, he's a failed Bob Dylan, and perhaps even more tragically so since he fails before there is yet to be a successful Bob Dylan. In fact, maybe because Llewyn imitates the greatest act before he becomes the greatest act, it can be said that Llewyn is not a failed Dylan, but that Dylan is actually a successful Llewyn.

    Initially, I was a bit off-put by what seemed to be Mulligan's careless misprision: "Like King Midas's idiot brother". But after further reflection, this reveals itself to be a delightful mistake that sums up Llewyn's predicament perfectly: He never even rises to the status of the foolish King Midas whose lust for fortune destroys him, but remains only his "idiot brother" whose wishes are never asked for and for whom history has all but forgotten. There has to be a kind of sweet but lifelong despair in falling slightly below the best before the best is born. Just imagine if Mary and Joseph had reared another son before The Almighty: he'd be Llewyn Davis.

    ReplyDelete