Sometimes I find it hard to write about stuff I really love. The visceral nature of those reactions can be difficult to put into interesting, intelligent words. So here’s a compromise: an essay style column which tries to deal with things in non-review-y ways. To start off, my favorite movie of last year: Inside Llewyn Davis.
Heavy Spoilers. I suggest reading this after you’ve seen the movie. It’s very good.
- Hang Me, Oh Hang Me
The first shot of Inside Llewyn Davis is of a man and his microphone. It won’t be his for long, but it is for now. And he uses it to tell us who he is, or, at least who he thinks he is.
“Wouldn’t mind the hanging, but the layin’ in the grave so long…” croons a tired Llewyn Davis. There’s a lot of sadness and regret and beauty in his voice. But mixed in with that is a bit of mythologization and self-pity. After all, the line ends “…poor boy, been all around this world”. In some ways it’s Llewyn’s fundamental flaw. He’s an asshole and he knows it. But that doesn’t stop him from being an asshole. And he still thinks that his pursuit of his music and his dedication to it are enough to compensate. He still thinks he’s better than almost everyone around him. And that’s the kind of idea a Coen brothers’ movie doesn’t leave unpunished.
2. Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)
But the punishment’s already started by the time we meet Llewyn. And it’s of a kind he can’t deal with. The recording of Dink’s Song is possibly the sweetest sounding number on the film’s soundtrack. But it’s a record. An artifact of the past. And it lingers over Llewyn wherever he goes. It’s also a duet and another, sweeter tone twines around Llewyn’s on the harmonies. And they’re so pretty you can almost forget the words. But the song isn’t a happy one. It’s a goodbye song. And like all things it too must come to an end.
“Life ain’t worth living without the one you love…” sing two people who no longer exist.
Llewyn has to try anyway.
3. Please Mr. Kennedy
The Coen brothers wouldn’t be the Coen brothers without their particular goofy sense of humor. And it’s about time for a little lightening of the mood. But as silly and frothy as the session might be (Adam Driver needs to do more comedy) it’s grounded in very real character dynamics. Justin Timberlake’s Jim is a hapless, well-meaning beardo who’s just trying to help his friend scrounge up the cash for an abortion. It’s Llewyn’s fault that the abortion’s for Jim’s wife Jean who can’t tell if the baby is Llewyn’s and isn’t taking any goddamn chances. And even then Llewyn can’t help being a dick about it:
“I’m happy for the gig, man, but who wrote this?” he asks.
“I did,” replies Jim.
But as awful as Llewyn can be, he still knows when he’s fucked up. When Jean takes him to task about his indiscretions his defenses are weak and half-hearted. And when he realizes he’s insulted Jim he decides to shut up and just do the work.
He gets the money. He fucks that up too, but Llewyn’s journey isn’t about success, is it?
4. The Death of Queen Jane
Bud Grossman* is the big time. Chicago is the big time. And by now Llewyn could really use a break.
*Played by none other than the Patron Saint of Mediocrities, F. Murray Abraham.
Grossman’s club is called the Gate of Horn. That’s the one through which true dreams, the prophetic ones, pass into the mortal world. And this is the most dreamlike section. But like all true dreams it has real world repercussions. At the very least Llewyn could use a winter coat and dry shoes. So he finagles his way into an audition with Bud Grossman.
In a large auditorium they sit across from one another. Then Llewyn sings. It’s a strange song. A soft, lilting ballad about childbirth. Queen Jane may be a monarch, but she wants to be a mother. And she will be one, even if it means her death. Her king and her handmaids protest, but in the end she gets her wish and the babe is born. The kingdom celebrates, but it also mourns the passing of its beloved queen. Llewyn delivers the last lines acapella, putting all of himself into his voice.
“I don’t see a lot of money here,” replies Bud Grossman. And he’s right. There isn’t. Llewyn has talent. But he doesn’t have it. He can’t connect to people. The crowd can sing along with Jim, Jean and Troy Nelson. They’ll never sing along with Llewyn.
“You comfortable with harmonies?” asks Grossman.
“No. Yes, but uh, no. I had a partner,” says Llewyn.
“Well, that makes sense,” says Grossman. “My suggestion? Get back together.”
“That’s good advice,” Llewyn acknowledges, “Thank you, Mr. Grossman.”
5. The Shoals of Herring
It is good advice. Llewyn isn’t good enough. He’s not bad. He’s just not special. It’s a harsh coming to earth, but it’s also necessary. Unfortunately, this being a Coen movie, that’s not the end of Llewyn’s troubles and every bit of poor, short-sighted carelessness from the first half of the movie comes home to roost.
He decides to ship out as part of the Merchant Marines again. At least he’ll have work, food and clothes. And he finally decides to visit his father, to say goodbye before he goes off on the same journey his father must have hundreds of times over. He brings along his guitar. And as the old man sits in the corner Llewyn decides to sing him a song. “The Shoals of Herring”, the same song he recorded for his parents when he was eight.
But another patriarchal figure has to disappoint Llewyn. He finishes the song only to find that his father has soiled himself. It’s the second time Llewyn has tried to get through and failed. And this one might hurt worse. It’s a personal failure. Not a professional one.
6. Fare The Well (Dink’s Song) [Reprise]
As bleak and circular as Llewyn’s journey may feel, it isn’t completely without change. He’s stuck, but he’s accepted it. And there’s even a small sliver of hope: he can play the song that he used to do with his partner. And do it well. It’s the most energy Llewyn spends on anything in the movie (except maybe chasing the cat) and it feels like an exorcism. He pushes through the pain and emerges on the other side. Not whole, but not completely broken either.
“That’s what I got,” he says after he’s done. And now he knows it.
And this time, when he meets the man in black, he knows why.
Llewyn ends where he started. But there’s been a hint of internal motion. Maybe he’ll get it together. But even if he doesn’t, it might not matter. The world doesn’t revolve around Llewyn Davis. And as much as it may feel like he’ll never escape his own particular Rube Goldberg machine, the machine can change. And when a young Robert Zimmerman takes the stage after Llewyn to play his own bastardized folk music, that change is here.
It’s an ambiguous note to end on. It might mean that Llewyn is obsolete. He might sing folk songs, but Bob Dylan writes them. In a way that’s more relevant, and perhaps more resonant, than anything Llewyn could have done. But then again, maybe not. Maybe the journey did have some effect on Llewyn. And when the folk scene explodes into the mainstream counterculture, maybe someone will find a copy of Inside Llewyn Davis. It might only be a few people. And it might not mean much to Llewyn, but it might move them in a particular way that’s unique and special. And, occasionally, for a few people, it might move them enough to make it their favorite movie of the year.