Over the next few weeks, I will be releasing a series of 10 essays about my top 10 films of the 2010s. These will not be comprehensive, lengthy essays about every aspect of each of the films, but will instead be shorter essays about single elements that I found worth discussing or interesting. These essays will not necessarily spoil every part of the film but they will be spoiling elements fairly freely. Obviously I recommend you see each of these films.
#2: Inside Llewyn Davis
The core of the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, Inside Llewyn Davis, is fear, a very specific kind of fear. The core is the fear that no matter how good you are, how smart, how talented, how heartfelt your singing is and how hard you try, it will never be enough. You will never make it, you will never be famous or beloved, because there is something missing. You will never be whole and as a result, you will always be a failure. It is a fear summed up in the moment when a potential manager, Bud Grossman, hears Llewyn play and rather than say anything about Llewyn’s playing, or singing or even his stage presence, simply says “I don’t see much money here.”
The film expresses this missing piece rather literally at several points, most notably when Grossman, tells him that Llewyn is not cut out for being a solo singer and should reunite with his former partner (who, unbeknownst to Bud, killed himself months earlier; a piece of himself Llewyn needs but that he can never recover) but it also chooses to show this more subtly, by making almost every musician Llewyn interacts with an expression of this, showing how he could be different or, more painfully, how his life will be if he can’t be.
Jim, his friend who lets him crash on his floor, is friendly and willing to create songs that are more commercial (Please Mr. Kennedy may be a ridiculous novelty song but as the soundtrack demonstrates at other points, ridiculous novelty songs were popular in 1961 and it will likely sell), two traits that are extremely useful for making it in the music industry. Jean, Jim’s wife, has many of Llewyn’s faults; She’s caustic and self centered (She spends the entirety of all of her interactions with Llewyn lobbing relentless insults at him, she refuses to take any responsibility for sleeping with Llewyn and apparently he’s not the only one she’s cheated on her husband with) but unlike him, she knows how to turn it off and put on a different persona during performances, and is willing to look ahead and do things to make ends meet properly, something Llewyn derides as “Careerist.”
The other musicians may not get as much screen time, but they also hold a mirror up to Llewyn, show him (and the audience) ways in which he could be better. Troy, another musician who crashes on Jim and Jean’s couch, may not be very smart but he’s good natured, selfless (he calls Jim and Jean up on stage during his set and lets them have the lion’s share of the solos during their songs) and, as Bud Grossman says, people connect with him. Al Cody, who gets even less screen time, may or may not be talented, but he’s willing to try and reinvent himself, changing his name and apparently his image to pursue a more Country musical sound.
But I’d say that it’s the one musician Llewyn meets outside of New York, Roland Turner, who represents the hardest look at Llewyn’s life. He doesn’t represent something Llewyn could do to be better, he represents Llewyn’s future if he’s unable to change, a future where Llewyn’s bitterness acerbic nature has metastasized and taken over his entire personality. Turner may be a great musician, we never find out, but by the time we meet him in the film his unending barrage of cruelty has driven away everyone in his life. The only person who knows him who willing spends time with him is Johnny Five, his valet, whose personal relationship with him is so deep that when he and Llewyn find Turner passed out on the floor in the throes of an overdose, Johnny Five reacts with mild amusement. And so, when continuing to stay by Roland Turner becomes inconvenient, Llewyn does what everyone has done to him; He leaves.
In some ways I think the last musician that appears in the film, Bob Dylan, is the most brilliant use of all, because it is using the audiences’ meta knowledge to hammer home the point. We can invent futures for Llewyn and his fellow fictional characters; Perhaps Troy’s album will flop, perhaps the Times will give Llewyn’s performance at the end of the film a rave review, perhaps Jean will break up with Jim and go on 5 year tour of Europe with a vampire baroness, we don’t know (though that last one seems unlikely). But we know that Bob Dylan will be successful. Despite being a much worse singer than Llewyn (sorry Dylan fans, we all know it’s true) Dylan has something undefinable, something that Llewyn lacks, and as a result we know he will make it.
So then, the question is asked, why can’t Llewyn break these cycles? Well the film gives him two attempts to do so and show how he won’t or can’t break out. The first moment is subtle, which makes sense since much of the Coen Brothers work is built on top of small, subtle moments. Early in the film, Llewyn learns that his ex girlfriend, whom he paid for an abortion for, never got the abortion and instead returned to her hometown of Akron, Ohio to have the baby. And so, on the return from Chicago, there is a long moment where Llewyn drives past Akron, his gaze lingering on the town and the turn off from the highway. But ultimately, he rejects that life, that turn, and continues on to New York. There may not be much for him in New York, but he still sees it as living, as opposed to (as he frames it to his sister) “Existing.”
But he still does give in to just “Existing” in what amounts to the film’s third act, and attempts to rejoin the Merchant Marines, even after visiting his father and seeing how hollow and empty that same life left him. But he can’t. In order to return to the Merchant Marines he has to pay his owed union dues and have his seaman’s license. And his sister, on his orders, threw out the box that contained his seaman’s license, and paying his union dues have cleaned him out of the money he’d need to replace his seaman’s license. His bad decisions and shortsightedness have closed off the option of returning to the Merchant Marines. Just because he’s trying to pick up the pieces and make something of his life, doesn’t mean the world is obligated to play along. The bridges stay burned.
One of the people I saw this movie with expressed annoyance at the ending, at the reveal (if you can call it that) that the entire movie was an elaborate “How we got here”, that the prologue was also the epilogue. I wasn’t annoyed, partially because I knew the Coen’s fondness for Shaggy Dog Stories going in, but on further reflection, it was also the perfect ending, because Llewyn’s life is built out of such cycles; Moving from place to place, falling into pissing contests and jealousy, alienating every person who lets him crash on their couch until he returns to the top of the roster and goes through the whole cycle again. The only way out for Llewyn, the film seems to posit, is to face his fear of not being good enough and learn to accept it and be a better person, or to find a bridge to another life he hasn’t yet burned.