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Why ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Might Be The Most Subversive Film The Coen Brothers Have Ever Made

Why 'Inside Llewyn Davis' Might Be The Most Subversive Film The Coen Brothers Have Ever Made

"I don’t see a lot of money here."

With these simple words — oh, the tiny scornful emphasis on the word "money"! — unimpressed impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), after a beat of immaculate unreadability, casually snuffs out the already sputtering flame of Llewyn Davis’ musical ambitions. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) has a shoe full of slush, a married lover about to abort her child on the off-chance it might be his, and a date with a beating in an alleyway. And on his way to meet it, he will hit and probably kill a cat that may or may not be the same one he abandoned earlier. If the nameless animal’s fate, and its identity, will forever exist in a state of uncertainty (let’s just call this second cat Schroedinger and be done with it), from this point in the movie, there is no such uncertainty about Llewyn’s trajectory. He is never going to make it.

With "Inside Llewyn Davis," which arrives on the Criterion Collection this month, the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers, perhaps the most broad-terms successful American independent filmmakers of our time, made a film about failure. Having enjoyed a near-unprecedented level of consistent respect as artists, they wrote a story about an artist faced with consistent peer indifference. They cast imminent megastar Oscar Isaac, now a lynchpin of the America’s highest-grossing film of all time, as this also-ran, this nearly-man, this future obscurity. Into a vortex of high expectations, as the Cannes-competing follow-up to the Coens’ biggest-ever box office hit "True Grit," which netted them 10 Oscar nominations, came a movie that deals almost exclusively in the currency of disappointment.

Critics adored it. Well, the majority did, enough to have the film hold a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though safe to say J.Hoberman was not among them. And a small section of the moviegoing public was just as worshipful, giving it a remarkable per-screen average when it opened in limited release. But then, when it expanded, general audiences largely stayed away, maxing its domestic gross out at just over $13 million — far less than 1/10th the take of "True Grit" and just under half that of the inarguably lesser "Burn After Reading."

I don’t see a lot of money here.

It would seem, not to retrospectively credit them with God-level metatextual creative integrity or anything, that the Coens made a film about self-defeat that kind of self-defeated. But of course, there are reasons other than what-it’s-about that contributed to its financial underperformance — chief among them the absence of marquee stars and the lack of big-studio backing. As far as marketing pushes go, CBS Films can’t compete with the likes of Paramount, whose gamble on "True Grit" paid off so handsomely. But there are also narrative factors at work that both made it hard to get people into theaters to see it, and made it so valued by those who did.

So it didn’t make a lot of money, and it’s about things we’d rather not talk about — is it any wonder that, certainly prior to Criterion affixing their seal of approval, ‘Llewyn Davis’ was heading for classification as inessential, a "minor" Coens film? It’s minor-key, certainly — but in the quietest, most ruefully autumnal manner possible, it might also be their bravest and most unique film. A grand claim perhaps, so let’s go one grander: In form and in theme, "Inside Llewyn Davis" challenges storytelling norms on a practically subterranean level, burrowing into and gently undermining the foundations of what we, as consumers of American moviemaking in the mid-2010s, think movies are supposed to be like and supposed to be about.

There are the obvious ways the film kicks against traditional three-act movie structure. In a conversation with Guillermo del Toro featured in the extras of the Criterion package, the Coens assert that the idea of starting at the end and bringing us back there through the course of the film was one of the first concepts they thought of. Indeed, the story now goes that the image of a folk singer being beaten in an alley was the kernel of the whole film — grist to the mill of those who accuse the Coens (wrongly) of misanthropy. But even discounting time-manipulation formal trickery, the film’s story, told chronologically, is a circle, or at least the first complete circuit in an ever-decreasing spiral.

It’s a story that loops back on itself to deposit Llewyn right where we found him, just a little more broken. The terminally lovely Gorfeins have forgiven him; Ulysses the cat is back in the loving bosom of Lillian, who is making another of her "famous" ethnic dishes; Jean (Carey Mulligan) will revert to a state of not-pregnant with Llewyn’s maybe-child; and even the new knowledge Llewyn has gained will not make any measurable impact on his actual life. He will never go to Akron to see the child whose existence he’s been made aware of, and even his bid to change things up by abandoning his artistic dream and rejoining the Merchant marines comes to naught (Llewyn even fails at selling out). The world is conspiring to keep him exactly where he is.

In contrast to traditional screenwriting tropes where events progress and people change, everything comes full circle here and every good impulse Llewyn displays has its counterbalancing opposite. Without hesitation, he accepts the responsibility for paying for Jean’s abortion (her decision), then promptly asks clueless cuckold Jim (Justin Timberlake) to front him the cash. He tries valiantly to find Ulysses, the Gorfein’s cat, and even takes care of Ulysses’ unwitting surrogate after that mistake is discovered. But then later he does the one unforgivable thing in the whole film and leaves Cat 2 with the odious Roland Turner (John Goodman). Yet even then, the Coens, masters of the in-between moment of hesitance and doubt, linger on Llewyn’s conflict over this dastardly act: On Isaac’s face, we read the whole battle between these eternally warring instincts of his. If he were just an asshole, "Inside Llewyn Davis" would be the story of his comeuppance, and we’d all stand and cheer at the end. Instead, it’s an elegiac, painfully relatable tragicomedy, and that’s because Llewyn is not an asshole, except when he is, and when he is, he has decency enough to realize it.

The circularity of the plot and the Newton’s 3rd Law-level yin/yang balance of the characterization is unusual, and gives the film its lovely texture of inevitability, irony and absurdity, but it is not unique. Nor is the idea of a loser as your hero — indeed the Coens have made sad-sack, luckless goons who fail in their endeavors kind of a stock in trade (failed wifenapper Jerry Lundegaard, failed family man Larry Gopnik, failed screenwriter Barton Fink, etc.). What is far rarer in American film (indeed the only direct comparison to speak of is probably Mia Hansen-Løve‘s "Eden," which is French) is the way it is about failure, and the kind of failure it is about. This is not grand operatic "Fitzcarraldo" folly, nor failure endured prior to rising again, nor social failure that comes as the price of personal growth. Llewyn’s failure is incremental and irreversible, and there is no victory, however small, to be snatched from its jaws. It’s not even his just desserts — unlike previous Coens antiheroes, Llewyn is an artist whose worth is not based on an inflated sense of his own talents. He is actually good enough to have made it. In fact, Llewyn Davis fails despite being everything we like to tell ourselves you need to be to succeed.

He is talented — maybe even sublimely so — and he has integrity and makes sacrifices. Within the parameters of his bohemian lifestyle, he works hard: schlepping to Chicago on a Hail Mary mission, checking in with his manager, scrabbling for gigs and occasionally even singing for his supper. And when he performs, even on a paycheck gig for which he feels nothing but contempt like "Please Mr. Kennedy" (Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren begging not to be sent into outer space!), he leaves everything of himself up there on the stage, in every moment. Llewyn has exactly the kind of alchemic performance presence that stars are made of: In those moments, sending songs up into the air in underpopulated Greenwich Village dives like so many smoke signals, we understand that he is not just another Coens sad-sack loser with snow in his shoes. He is cursed with a self-awareness none of those guys possessed. And, improbably enough, he’s an optimist. Llewyn, maybe honest only when he sings, does so with a desperate kind of hope — each song a puff of faith, from an ever-dwindling supply, that honest artistic expression can create true connection.

All this gets him close enough to greatness that he can practically graze it with his fingertips, but still, his moment passes in ticks and tocks of disappointment and rejection. "Inside Llewyn Davis" discomfits primarily by being about a noble, near-miss failure — the sort that is overwhelmingly statistically probable when compared with the isolated examples of "making it." But that truth contradicts the deeply rooted narratives of "Work Hard And You Will Succeed!" and "Everything Will Be Great If You Follow Your Dreams!" that the movies, perhaps more than any other storytelling medium, are guilty of perpetuating. And we’ve become are so attuned to consuming these narcotizing myths, especially in post-1970s U.S. cinema, that "Inside Llewyn Davis" feels borderline un-American in even suggesting they might not be true. It’s no surprise this sounds like a political manifesto; at a time when demagogues frequently invoke the inarguable good that is the American Dream, when you have billionaire presidential candidates exercising (however unjustifiably) the rhetoric of the self-made man, this gentle, soothing reminder that most of us will max out some way short of our grandest ambitions takes on special resonance.

So is it just a conspiracy of dumb luck and bad timing and unfortunate, butter-side-down decision-making that prevents Llewyn from being the guy the New York Times discovers that night in the Gaslight? Or does Llewyn fail because, on some level too deep for him to acknowledge, he has stopped believing he will succeed? Is he Wile E. Coyote, halfway across the chasm with his legs windmilling, who’d probably make it to the other side if only he didn’t look down? "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a hard sell because perhaps the most pernicious part of the "Believe And Achieve!" myth is that even entertaining the possibility of failure is tantamount to making it happen. To identify with a loser is to be a loser yourself. This is patently nonsense, but it certainly goes some way to suggesting why "Inside Llewyn Davis" didn’t pack multiplexes.

That said, the film is populated with typical Coensian interludes that feel like they foreshadow defeat — the sock full of slush, the overdose in the restroom, the lost cats, the unhelpful elevator attendant, the death of Llewyn’s old partner off the "wrong" bridge. But you can also see how all of those could also be the pre-fame hardship stories of a guy who actually did make it — chat-show fodder trotted out under studio lights. But Llewyn makes his grab for greatness and comes away with a handful of nothing, and so he’s not a hero whose storied upward trajectory is marked out with these anecdotal milestones; he’s an asshole with wet feet who abandoned a cat. The only thing that separates Llewyn from a successful musician is success itself, and great success is fickle, granted only to the very few, the very lucky. 

And that’s the final way that "Inside Llewyn Davis" is subversive. Lament the rise of comic-book movies all you like, but the truth is, our appetite for stories of exceptionalism is insatiable, whether or not the hero is wearing a cape. Stories of beating the odds, overcoming insurmountable obstacles and attaining untenable dreams flood our theater screens. Stories about the exceptions to every rule of life have become so overridingly prevalent as to have become the rule. But the only thing that makes those stories powerful is the knowledge we hide away somewhere, that almost no one does beat the odds — the house always wins. The more insurmountable an obstacle, the greater the number who will fail to surmount it. And where are their movies? "Inside Llewyn Davis," one small film tacking against the current in a sea of thousands, is an anthem for the also-rans, and if it’s absurd and sad, well, most true things are, and at least it’s also beautiful.

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Comments

movan

Great read, but I don’t agree that this dude (Llewyn Davis) is very talented. And definitely not sublimely so. The writer of this article should have remembered the Dylan figure at the end of the film. It begs for comparison between Davis and Dylan. It’s a great study of mediocrity, and we know Davis is mediocre because of the man with the guitar we see only obliquely. The comparison tells all.

Hitfan

I found the movie to be highly entertaining. I’m also a creative person who struggles in anonymity and I can identify with Llewyn. The thing that struck me the most is that if he had patiently waited for his record label’s clearance he would have gotten royalties and credit for "Please Mr. Kennedy" and if he had taken up Bud Grossman’s offer to perform in a folk trio (an obvious allusion to Peter Paul and Mary he wouldn’t have toiled or struggled so much.

Dave

@Romeo So, as a final response to your comment, I would say the film isn’t really even about the White disillusionment that led to the hippie counterculture, but the thrust of the film and its focus on Llewellyn Davis is on how that disillusionment and counterculture represented the death of a certain way of life, a certain idea of "Whiteness" that could only be rescued by a Jew who grafted his Old Testament Jewish influences onto White folk music to preserve the culture and "spirit" that the music embodied.

Dave

@Romeo You’ll notice in many points of the film, Davis’s ethnic origins are brought into question. He is alternately Welsh, half-Italian, but also has many characteristics that have traditionally signified the "wandering Jew" in the Western canon. So, in the sense, the hippies and oounterculture movement perhaps meant one thing to White people, but to Jews and other people of color, it meant something else. It meant an opportunity to expand the definition of Whiteness, to perhaps change its course entirely.

Dave

@Romeo Their choice of casting Oscar Isaac is of course part of the subversiveness and funniness of their inside joke. Isaac is of course an actor of Hispanic descent who has changed his working name to an ostensibly "White" name. So, in the same way that the Old Testament passages in Coens’s films and Dylan songs are ways of infiltrating "Whiteness" by Jews, so has Oscar Isaac infiltrated Whiteness by his screen personas.

Dave

@Romeo In many ways, American folk music is a code word for one of the last bastions of "Whiteness" as a cultural and racial trope, as a symbol of purity. Llewyn Davis’s purity and defiance of changing with the times, and ultimately being left behind is symbolic of this trope of Whiteness ultimately being left behind and merged with Jewish identity through Dylan. In this way, the subversive nature of ILD is also metacommentary on the Coens’s own careers in injecting tropes of Jewish identity into the White mainstream.

Dave

@Romeo I would argue that the references to the Old Testament as markers of Jewish identity is central to what the Coens are saying about Dylan and what folk music was before Dylan arrived. The Old Testament itself is only relevant in a peripheral sort of way to the subversiveness of ILD. The idea of Jewish identity as partially shaped by Old Testament passages infiltrating mainstream American values and folk music is key.

Romeo

For example, if you’re mining it for the disillusionment and alienation that gave rise to the hippy counterculture, Old Testament readings would only clot your analysis.

Romeo

Sometimes the Old Testament lens distracts from other textual and discursive possibilities…

Dave

Don’t trust the White man’s praise for you Kiang. Enjoy it, benefit from it, but don’t trust it.

Dave

It’s actually kind of funny that Kiang would profile the Coen brothers film in her review, as they are woefully uncharitable in their depictions of Asian Americans in their films. It’s very subtle, but it’s all there- every time a person of Asian descent appears in their films, something about their place in the scene just doesn’t fit right. As if their very existence, the very encounter of these beings with Western civilization is itself an absurdity.

Wilkes

@Brian whole bit there on how much critics liked it if you actually read it

Brian Boylan

Inside Llewyn Davis was named Best Picture by the National Society of Film Critics, and chosen by dozens — if not hundreds — of film critics as one of the best films of 2013. It is a wonderful movie; it is not unappreciated. Love the movie; hate the premise of the article.

NJ

Insightful and beautifully written. Exceptional work. Keep it coming.

Enrique

@Jaime sounds like it could be about America’s love for sucess stories that’s a nice way to look at it.

Jaime

Such a likable film about an unlikable dork! Audiences always prefer the Poe Damerons and that’s why ‘Llewyn Davis’ is a treasure. I wonder (don’t get me wrong) if the "failure" of this movie about a loser has anything to do with that American love for success stories.

Brian

This movie is not about failure

Dawn

All of the Coen films are about failure and about unrelenting and unforgiving the world is to those who "fail" (especially at their own hand).

Curtis

I always saw him as a success. He is doing what he loves and chooses to not get a regular job and just "exist." He is persistent.

Bogg

Nice article. Especially timely as we all celebrate a festival made up of great successes who were selected by a political lobby process, nepotistic "labs," favors for producers and cast, and preferred alumni. Success is earned by hard work? FOH.

Noah

Jessica Kiang is probably the best writer on The Playlist and this is a terrific write-up on the film. But I’m not sure what makes Inside Llewyn Davis their MOST subversive film. How is it more or less subversive than A Serious Man, a film in which the protagonist is a passive nebbish whose quest for a deeper understanding of his problems ultimately fails? My point is that I’m not sure if Inside Llewyn Davis is the outlier that Kiang seems to think it is. With the rare exception of True Grit, the Coens have always subverted genres and played around with audience expectations. Whatever, maybe I’m nitpicking. Anyway, I’m still ambivalent about the film but I’m probably gonna watch it again soon. I currently regard it as minor Coen but Kiang’s copy has persuaded me to reconsider my thoughts. Nice job!

Rose dr Novo

Superb , measured incrediibly intelligent discussion of one of my most admired films. Thank you.

Kirby

Fantastic article!!!

Hernán

Wow, what an incredible article this is.

Sasha

Cool articular… but I still don’t see any money in it.

Charles

I always saw the movie as a prediction for what it would be like for one of the Coens if he didn’t have his brother. So much of the movie is about the loss of Llewyn’s partner. I know it’s a movie about failure, but so much of that is because he can’t get his life together after his partner killed himself. That’s my interpretation of it.

Christopher Reardon

As someone who has self-published 3 books, has an M.A. in english this analysis of this classic movie is dead on. Terrific. Nicely done.

Jimmy

This movie is about what would’ve happened if there were only one Coen Brother. If you see it as a story about failure that only means it doubles as a Rorschach test (and you maybe didn’t watch the clip attached to the article).

(Also, Jerry Lundegaard isn’t a loser so much as he’s evil, and Fargo is about Marge anyway.)

StephenM

"Any analysis"? Come on man, there are other things going on in their movies as well. –Personally, I think we should be careful at seeing Llewyn’s not being discovered on that last night as just a random fluke. Bob Dylan did not get to be great just because some critic saw him one night at the Gaslight, and I don’t think the movie is saying that, or should be read that way. I think the irony is somewhat historical: Llewyn sings folk music in the gorgeous ’50s crooner manner, or the way Joan Baez might sing it. He has talent, and he believes in his songs, but he can’t give them that ineffable power and sense of history that Bob Dylan’s scratchy, untrained voice can. Within a couple of years, the singalong folk music movement would be falling out of style as Dylan rose ascendent, went electric, and found the wild, visionary qualities in the folk tradition, rather than the newly pretty ones. So Llewyn isn’t merely missing a chance at being discovered, his whole milieu and historical moment is about to change. He’s stuck in a personal rut, and the whole world is about to move on without him.

Dave

And I usually enjoy Kiang’s articles so much.

Dave

Any analysis of a Coen Bros film without interrogating Jewish identity or Old Testament references is half baked.

brou

Great text. Hats off. The last paragraph is spot on.

Oli

Well the Coen always flirted with movies that push the boundary of absurdity in the "everyday life" events. I like them a lot when they get to a kind of alienation, like this film or A Serious Man.

Jimbo

Funny to think back now on the scene in it when Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren sing and strum guitars together. Ah, the good old days before the First Order.

Christien

While the film is about failure the irony is that Llewan can now ride Dylan’s coattails to commercial success if he sticks around the scene another couple of years. It had not occurred to me until they mention it in the video that there is great irony in Llewyn heckling the one true folk artist in the film. I suppose because I tend to dislike those kinds of artist too.

Carolan

Loved your review. After seeing the movie I had to research the 60’s era folk scene (b. 1955). Someone at work had described it as about the beat generation and my interest was piqued. But it not about that. The Cohen brothers skirt between mockumentry and realism in away that’s interestingly understated. Llewyn’s a guy who lives in the moment never considering the consequences of his actions yet he keeps on going until he can no longer make choices and has to accept defeat, except he get’s punched out by “Grama Moses’s” hubbie. It is a positive ending because you can see that he’s woken up and he’s going to stick around for awhile.

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