"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.