Thursday, December 26, 2013


As I was watching the Coen Brothers 60s-folk-scene movie Inside Llewyn Davis I thought: Boy, sometimes the Coens just dump shit on a guy.

It's a trait I never liked in them. In Barton Fink, the hero is treated contemptuously as a poetaster, and in A Serious Man Larry Gopnik is such a schlimazel that we are invited to think, in the uncharitable way humans do when someone chronically can't get out of his own way, that failure is simply his fate.

But Davis has something neither Fink nor Gopnick have: obvious talent. While the Coens make Fink absurdly callow -- Hollywood at first seems to misunderstand him, and then to understand him all too well -- and Gopnick's tenure track doesn't look like much of an achievement, they make Davis a prodigy with a real gift.

Davis also has something else I don't see in those other guys: a glimmer of hope, if not for deliverance at least of recognition.

We meet Davis in 1961 Greenwich Village, singing the hell out of a song about a rambler who's bound to die, and then find out that his own life is almost that bad: his singing partner is dead and his career is stalled; he's broke, without even a decent coat to protect him from a god-awful New York winter; his record label isn't paying him. He's been couch-surfing seemingly forever.

But when a friend's girlfriend -- Jean of "Jim & Jean," a drippy duo -- tells Davis she's pregnant and, though she's not totally sure it's his kid, demands he pay for the abortion, Davis readily accepts. That surprised me because I'd been hearing everywhere that the character is "unlikable" (e.g., "a jerk of a hero"). But I liked him. Maybe because, in some ways, I've been him. But also, Davis behaves pretty honorably for the most part: he cadges flops, rides, and cigarettes, but he doesn't cheat anyone -- that is, he tries to fulfill his obligations, even down to taking care of a cat he has accidentally let out of a friend's apartment. (Other people think nothing of cheating him, though.) He only lets people (and animals) down when his extremely bleak circumstances make it too hard for him to do better.

And [spoilers henceforth] when he's drunk and/or morose he lashes out verbally, without regard for targets, which is what gets him beaten up -- a misfortune which, though it's not bigger than the ones he's already borne, in the context of the film seems huge, in part because the Coens play it out twice, bookending the film; and in part because, by the time we see the second version, we've seen Davis scramble to at last make something of his career, then scramble to fall back on a merchant-seaman gig, failing at both; if we had the impression when we first heard him sing that Davis had to make it somehow, the film's end makes it look impossible.

The question that usually comes up when a hero fails is: What has he done to deserve it? I thought for a while maybe Davis' talent is an illusion -- that what we see when he sings and plays is just what's in his mind, not the actual performance. When he plays at the Gaslight, his normal hang, the audience is little better than polite; when he plays for his infirm father, the old man shits himself.

Most devastating of all is the reaction of the Chicago impresario Mel Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, properly sepulchral). Davis plays him a gorgeous version of "The Death of Queen Jane," and the Coens take care to show us Grossman's stony face as he listens. Might it be a dramatic fake-out? No; when Davis is done, Grossman says, "I'm not seeing money here," and offers him a shot as a backup player, possibly in what will become Peter, Paul & Mary (his suggestion that Davis stay out of the sun to achieve a proper folky look comports with the story of what the real Grossman, Albert, told Mary Travers). Davis refuses, and Grossman suggests in a friendly manner that he go back to playing with his old partner. (Grossman says he never heard of the duo, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had, and knew the partner was a suicide.) Davis says it's a good suggestion.

That's where my own experience of the club world kicked in, and I realized: No, Davis is good -- and it doesn't matter. It turns out Grossman, who knows his business, is more interested in signing Troy Nelson, a young soldier/folksinger we saw play earlier (Stark Sands, disturbingly earnest), because he has a positive effect on people. Davis' effect on people, of course, is the opposite, and that's what hangs him -- angels could be flying out of his throat and people still wouldn't like him. That's show biz.

Why can't Davis see that? His snide remarks about other acts suggest that he thinks he has hold of something real in a world full of bullshit; all the other folks singing sorrowful songs are doing pretty okay and even going places, but Davis is actually suffering, sloshing through frozen puddles and losing breaks left and right, and his songs really reflect his experience. Oscar Isaac's wonderful performance, stunned and wary, gives the impression that what's eating Llewyn Davis has been eating him a long time, and he's made friends with it, as one does. And his singing makes his dilemma easier to understand. His songs are beautiful; if he changes, what happens to them?

So he's stuck in a feedback loop; his outbursts, his insistence on his own way of doing things, might be a reason for his failures, but they're also an understandable reaction to them. Opportunities keep coming, then going. Only one thing comes back to stay, and gives him some solace, some hint that things don't have to always fall apart, and that's the cat, revealed in a moment of grace ("you're forgiving me?").

And that's where some of the new information in the repeated sequence starts to make sense. By then we've seen Davis' triggering outburst, in which naturally he's lashing out at the wrong person, but at the climax of which he cries, "I hate folk music." It's as if he's calling something down on himself.

Among the other revelations is that back on the Gaslight stage, as Davis goes down, Bob Dylan is starting the career that will suck all the air out of American folk music and leave Davis and 99 percent of his comrades to find new careers. In a way, he's giving Davis his real break, delivering the coup de grace to a dream that's been killing him. Also: In a movie where everyone's always singing some variation of farewell, Davis looks after his assailant and says "au revoir" -- till we meet again.

He's beginning to see the light.

Oh, and he learns to keep the cat from getting out.

All the craft elements are excellent, as you'd expect; John Goodman's acerbic jazzman livens up the dead calm in the middle of the movie (and that whole scene where Johnny Five gets pulled out by the cops is some virtuoso filmmaking); Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake make credible folk twerps, and Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett lead a lovely troupe of Upper West Side bien pensants. Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography is justly celebrated already for making a cold, blue-and-brown misery out of 60's New York, as is T-Bone Burnett for making sure the tunes are in keeping not only with the era, but also with Davis' melancholy. Kudos also to the production design crew for the African masks and sad lamps.


  1. Leeds man1:23 PM

    One of the reasons we like dolphins is that we hear stories about them pushing shipwrecked sailors to shore. Of course, if they just push folk in random directions, we wouldn't hear stories about those pushed out to sea. This reads like someone strapped a camera to one of them.

  2. weirdly, as i've gotten older, i've found that tonelessness in the coens less and less funny, and more and more distasteful: i've seen that they treat their characters "like chess pieces" thrown around fairly accurate; qualities that i think are absent from their better works ("raising arizona," "miller's crossing," and the exquisite "no country for old men"), which look more like aberrations when contrasted with their larger oeuvre (even the more or less feelgood, "o brother..").

    because of this, even the skill they deploy in their work has me less and less inclined to see their films, or really even follow them. i understand that this is probably just the vein they're mining - in much the same way wes anderson, who owes more to the coens then i think a lot of his fans care to admit, mines the shallow depths of tweedom - but the aforementioned pieces have shown that they're capable of a lot more.

  3. JennOfArk1:58 PM

    Eh. The Coens have made a career out of telling and retelling the story of Job. You can argue that it's too limiting, that they aren't showing "growth" or whatever along those lines, but consciously or not, this seems to be the obsession or schtick that they've decided to stick with. I might have a problem with it if their work wasn't so consistently good; as it is, I simply accept that when I sit down to watch one of their films, it's going to be another retelling of Job, very well done.

  4. John E Williams2:11 PM

    I insist you collect all your movie reviews into a kickass book

  5. Which should include comics from John E. Williams.

  6. I'm with you. I love No Country and True Grit, but other than that I'm not a big fan of theirs. But goddamn those movies are good. I do appreciate the Coens' refusal to indulge in the action movie trope of portraying violence as an easy solution to a problem.

  7. Re: Davis as unlikable, I feel like there's a kneejerk reaction in our culture to look with disdain, rather than sympathy, on people who are consistent failures. There's a strong whiff of moral judgment, tied to the notion that success stems from good moral character.

    So the temptation is to view a movie like this, that follows the tribulations of a down-on-his-luck guy, as a morality play, the moral being, "Don't be like this guy." But why not? There are worse guys you could be, like, say, Gordon Gekko.

  8. John E Williams2:53 PM

    Ha, he'd never split his fee

  9. Sounds like Crumb, without the happy ending.

  10. Mooser3:49 PM

    "Bob Dylan is starting the career that will suck all the air out of American folk music"

    And I thought nature abhorred a vacuum.

  11. Bethany Spencer4:09 PM

    This is a wonderful review. I'm intrigued.

  12. Mooser4:30 PM

    Well, you know what they say, 'somebody has to do it'.

  13. RogerAiles4:35 PM

    I like stories of dolphins trained to blow up shit.

  14. Mooser4:37 PM

    ...but at the climax of which he cries, "I hate folk music."

    The director's cut contains the scene in which he trades the Dreadnaught for a Strat and Fender Deluxe Reverb, and founds "Big Star"

  15. AGoodQuestion7:42 PM

    Okay Roy, I have to admit that I went all "la la la can't hear you" for most of this post. Reason being this film is supposed to open at my local arthouse sometime around the new year and I'm trying to go in relatively unspoiled, which is something I'm not terribly consistent about but still. After having looked up "bien pensant", however, I enjoy seeing the Frenchism applied to Neelix.

    In my heart of hearts I think The Hudsucker Proxy is still my favorite of theirs. Loathed at the time, but I think the tension between their urge to, as you put it, dump shit on a guy and the Capraesque genre affinities makes for something both warm and inventive.

  16. AGoodQuestion7:43 PM

    I think I like the way you think, Triplanetary.

  17. AGoodQuestion7:48 PM

    Did somebody say stealth pun ?

  18. M. Krebs7:59 PM

    So which character is played by Paul Rudd in this picture?

  19. TGuerrant11:11 PM

    But the rug really tied the room together.

  20. Have you ever read the novel True Grit? It's one of my all-time favorite books. I thought the movie was okay, but it didn't hold a candle to the book. The book simultaneously exemplifies and sends up the Western genre, with Rooster Cogburn being a picture-perfect antihero (in one aside, it's mentioned that he basically becomes one of the villains from Shane).

    Seriously, if you haven't read the book, do so ASAP. As soon as you hit the first joke about laudanum, you'll be hooked.

  21. Another Kiwi12:59 AM

    Roy misses the obvious central point that this is a great conservative movie, though.

  22. I've heard good things about it, but your recommendation is certainly pushing me into "buy immediately" territory.

  23. Daniel Björkman1:57 AM

    It occurs to me that in order for someone else's girlfriend to even *potentially* be pregnant with his child, he must have done something wrong even before the movie started... :P

    But otherwise, yeah. He sounds like he's a better-than-most guy in a world of complete jerks. The people calling him "unlikeable" may simply not be grading him on the curve, but it's also more than possible that they are holding his flaws against him especially much because he hasn't "earned the right" to have flaws by being totally awesome in some other way. We live, after all, in a society where people write ranty articles about how thinking you can be a good person in the absence of personal excellence makes you a very bad person indeed.

  24. Leonard Pierce8:50 AM

    Nicely observed, Roy. "Inside Llewyn Davis" was, for me, about one eyelash away from being top-tier Coens, but that's more of a testament to their skill as filmmakers than its quality as a movie -- it's just got so many great ones to compete against.

    As time passes, I'm really struck at how skillfully they blend their craft as makers and storytellers with their smartass tendency to mock everything; some of the songs (I'm thinking in particular of the hyper-earnest a capella cover of "The Auld Triangle" by the besweatered faux-Irish quartet) just have to be making fun of the source material, but goddamned if I can get the thing out of my head.

    Anyway, as to your main thesis, although I did find this to be their most humanist movie (and a good antidote to the folks who perpetually accuse them of being nothing but shallow, cynical craftsmen), I'm still torn on Davis' likability -- though the camera just adores Isaac's face, and he carries so many scenes with just subtle changes of expression. But they said something in the pre-release publicity interviews that really struck me as not only extremely relevant to what this movie is all about, as you correctly observed, but also good advice to writers in general. I can't remember if it was Joel or Ethan, but the quote is:

    "Making a movie about an untalented guy who fails at his job isn't interesting. But making a movie about a guy who's great at his job and fails anyway -- that's interesting."

  25. Halloween_Jack9:51 AM

    I see what you did there.

  26. Halloween_Jack10:00 AM

    One of the Coens' most sympathetic characters, IMO, is H.I. McDonough, a man for whom almost everything is beyond his grasp, who wants nothing more than to be a good husband and father and goes about achieving that goal in almost the worst possible way. Lots of people don't like Raising Arizona because they think it makes fun of trailer trash (John Waters among them, IIRC, although I'm a bit suspicious of the tastes of someone who hates the Beatles), but I tend to see sympathy rather than pity, myself.

  27. Get it yesterday, old chum!

  28. Helmut Monotreme10:32 AM

    You mention Johnny Five in your review, and though I probably won't see the movie, I enjoy imagining that you are referring to the star of the movie 'Short Circuit'.

  29. I like it when they leave right before the end of the world.

  30. yeah, here here. john gets stuff wrong too.

  31. Mark_Bzzzz12:53 PM

    That's outrageous. That guy is George Zimmerman Pt. II, without the pretense of self defense. I hope he gets locked up for a good long spell.

  32. Mark_Bzzzz1:50 PM

    Brush with fame department. In the 80s I worked in Manhattan in the same building as the Coen Brothers. This was shortly after Blood Simple came out, so they weren't famous yet. During a trip up the elevator one day. I recognized them and tried to strike up a conversation. They completely ignored me to the point of avoiding eye contact, and I dropped it. There were many more uncomfortable elevator rides during the 5 years I worked there.

  33. bekabot2:08 PM

    "And I thought nature abhorred a vacuum."

    Yeah, but art doesn't.

  34. The world David Wong seems to live in is a depressing dystopia.

  35. JennOfArk2:29 PM

    Like I said, Job.

    H.I. only goes about his goals in the worst possible way because he's being goaded into it by everyone around him. His wife plans the kidnapping, his prison pals show up and bring him yet more trouble, etc. That's one of my favorite movies, btw. I find myself thinking of or quoting lines from it all the time.

  36. Sure, unlikeable people are unlikeable. And people who delusionally pursue a dream without suceeding make us uncomfortable. What strikes me is how many movies and novels are written about unlikeable and unsuccessful men--whether we are to identify with them or love them is not really the issue--they remain the protagonist. You never, ever, see women given the same adoring, watchful, treatment.

  37. DocAmazing9:38 PM

    That can't be right. He's a white kid.

  38. To me, Ecclesiastes is their number one source, but Job is a close second. Again and again, their characters seek to force the universe to pay them what they reel they are owed, and again and again the answer comes back, "Relax. You are owed nothing and owe nothing." Their most fulfilled characters already know this or come to accept it. And, look, it's a beautiful day.

  39. parsec12:39 AM

    The trick to understanding the movie is to imagine: what if everything in the tabloids like the National Enquirer was true?

  40. Daniel Björkman3:08 AM

    The worst part is, he seems to like that just fine. "I've been so much happier ever since I admitted to myself that I have no intrinsic human value! Let me share that blessing with you!"

  41. You've got a really good point there. I was thinking recently about this phenomenon I seem to be noticing of white dudes in various entertainment fields not bringing anything interesting to the table because they expect to be noticed and rewarded simply for being white dudes. I was thinking this because most of the white dudes who come up on my favored Pandora station are really, really boring. I felt like I was being slapped in the face by their boringness. Their boringness felt presumptuous. Maybe I'm overreacting.

    Personally, I'm attracted to unapologetic underachievers. I'd like to see more women among them - more female Lebowskis, say - in media. You certainly have a point.

  42. Bitter Scribe4:14 PM

    I stopped reading this at the spoiler alert, but I just wanted to say I appreciated your asides about Barton Fink, which I thought were very insightful.

  43. CMSFoundation1:15 AM

    Along with all four of Charles Portis' other books!

  44. CMSFoundation1:26 AM

    Re: Serious Man. Book of Job if you like, but I still say it's more Kafka's "The Trial." The task is impossible, the struggle endless, but they don't swoop until you give in. "This entrance was assigned for only you, and now I'm going to close it..."