This piece contains spoilers for Inside Llewyn Davis.
After watching it twice, I’ve come to the conclusion Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis is a near-perfect movie to which I have virtually no emotional response. I tried to get at the reasons for my subjective flatline in my review, but here I mostly want to talk about the perfection, and why I don’t think it’s about what many of its admirers think it’s about.
Generally speaking, the consensus is a that Llewyn is a movie about artistic failure: On Twitter, my friend Glenn Kenny joked to a third party that he didn’t love the movie because “you haven’t failed enough.” But for me, the movie’s setting in the Greenwich Village folk-music scene is, if not incidental, at least not central to its protagonist. Llewyn, played by Oscar Isaac in a manner consistent with the wintry gray of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography, is an artist, or at least more of one than Barton Fink‘s titular playwright, whom the Coens none-too-subtly suggest is a pompous left-wing fraud. They open Inside Llewyn Davis with Isaac playing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in full, the first of several songs we hear beginning to end in the course of the film, and it’s a beautiful performance. But the faces of the audience members watching him are more politely interested than they are captivated. At a pivotal point, powerful manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) tells Llewyn he doesn’t “connect with people,” and when his friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) move the Gaslight’s crowd to join in singing, Llewyn shoots a quizzical, half-confused/half-annoyed glance over his shoulder.
Apart from Llewyn, the most important figure in Inside Llewyn Davis is one who only appears onscreen as an image on a record cover: his former singing partner, Mike Timlin, who jumped to his death some time before the movie begins. Although I agree with Kenny that there’s no evidence to support the idea that Mike is the child of Mitch and Lilian Gorfein, two Upper West Side intellectuals who take a proprietary interest in the folk scene, Lillian’s hyper-emotional response to the mention of Mike’s suggests that he was someone special. (Also, take one look at Lilian and you know she’s a cryer.) At the end of an angry park-bench confrontation with Llewyn, Mulligan’s Jean abruptly changes moods and sighs, “I miss Mike”; after Bud Grossman tells Llewyn he doesn’t have the charisma to front his own act, Llewyn says he used to have a partner and Bud responds, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
So who was Mike Timlin? This involves some extrapolation, but I think it’s fair to infer that at least in the small circle of Llewyn, Jim, Jean and the Gorfeins, and probably in the coffee-house community at large, Mike was the glue that held them together, one of those people who helps turn a group of musicians who habitually bump into each other at shows into an honest-to-God scene. In my mind — and here we inch into simply making stuff up — Mike was someone everyone liked but no one really knew, someone whose suicidal impulses not even his close friends suspected. His death left a hole in their world, like the baby, possibly Llewyn’s, that Jean plans to abort, or the 2-year-old child he never knew he had, or the cat who disappears and reappears, a palpable reminder of Llewyn’s inability to form bonds with other creatures.
(The cat also follows in the Coens’ long tradition of building their movies around symbols that never attach to any fixed meaning — Miller’s Crossing‘s hats; Barton Fink‘s mystery package; The Hudsucker Proxy‘s various circles — which they once said they did just “to fuck with the critics.” In Llewyn Davis, they stick the cat with a metaphorically pregnant name and have Mitch Gorfein’s secretary implausibly mishear “Llewyn has the cat” as “Llewyn is the cat.” Here, critic critic critic.)
Inside Llewyn Davis is not-quite-bookended by two versions of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” the first from the Timlin & Davis record Llewyn plays in the Gorfeins’ apartment, the latter at the Gaslight show that both opens and closes the movie. (That will make sense if you’ve seen it.) Between them, at the movie’s emotional low point, is the version of “The Death of Queen Jane” Llewyn plays for his Chicago audition. “Play me something from Inside Llewyn Davis,” urges Bud Grossman, a more poignant request when you remove the implied italics. A slow and dismal ballad, “Queen Jane” is an odd choice for a showpiece, and it goes over like a lead balloon, but it also function as a thematic keystone for the film.
In traditional (i.e. pre-Dylan) folk music, self-expression is channeled through songs written by others, or in the case of traditional songs, effectively written by no one at all. (“Dink’s Song” is named for the African-American woman who first sang it to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, back when it was the story of a pregnant woman abandoned by her baby’s father.) On the surface, “The Death of Queen Jane,” the story of a queen who dies giving birth to the king’s child, has little relation to Llewyn’s life, but it’s relevant in several ways. It obviously reflects his mixed feelings about his (possibly) two children, one alive and unseen, the other unborn and soon to be dead. But it’s also about self-sacrifice, and about how in order for something new to come into being, something old may have to die first.
For me — and here, in the immortal words of Miller’s Crossing‘s corrupt police chief, I’m just speculatin’ about a hypothesis — the Queen Jane in “Queen Jane” is Lllewyn himself, stuck with something inside him — his grief, his loneliness, his anger — that he can’t get out. The movie’s circular structure suggests a Sisyphean loop, a depressive Groundhog Day in which Llewyn is damned (a word whose connotations the movie bears out) to repeat himself over and over, playing gig after gig but never breaking through. The only way to break the cycle to suffer a kind of symbolic death, to kill the parts of himself that care about things he can’t change and start fresh. (For that reason, although I agree with much in Matt Singer’s essay on the film, I don’t think it’s a movie about the Coen brothers imagining life without one another.)
There are several differences between the Timlin & Davis version of “Fare Thee Well” and the one Llewyn plays in the movie’s penultimate scene (It’s also the one he plays in the Gorfeins’ dining room until Lilian kills the mood by singing “Mike’s part.”) For one thing, it’s bereft of backing instruments, and it’s in waltz time rather than 4/4, an unspoken tribute to folksinger Dave Van Ronk, on whom Llewyn is partly based. The lyrics have changed as well, mostly by omission. There are a few minor tweaks — the man who “moves his body like a cannonball” becomes a woman; pouring rain becomes a drizzle — but Llewyn also omits two verses, one lamenting the singer’s “unborn child,” and the other concluding “Life ain’t worth living without the one you love.” Instead, Llewyn end by repeating the first verse, the one that gave its name to Timlin & Davis’ only album: “If I had wings like Noah’s dove, I’d fly up the river to the one I love.” By the end of the movie, Llewyn hasn’t taken flight, but he’s got his feet, and the rest of his body, on the ground.