What happens when your dreams stop being romantic?
They become nightmares, or at least nightmarish. The things you found exciting a long time ago become exhausting, tedious exercises. You mentally move on. You fall out of love.
Llewyn Davis has been on the road for a long time. So long, in fact, that the road is now his literal home. When he’s asked to write down his address to receive a paycheck, he leaves the space blank. When he tries to get his old job back as a merchant marine, his union dues are out of date. His only identity is his art, which has been shattered by the suicide of his (apparently more talented) music partner.
Joel and Ethan Coen have made their heaviest, most melancholy film with Inside Llewyn Davis, a film about an artist who has lost the battle. While, from the outset, this seems to be the opposite of the situation the Coen Brothers have found themselves in (they are, after all, two of the most celebrated filmmakers in the world), the film is very indicative of what it means to be an artist after the romantic side has faded.
What happens when you’re just a homeless guy with a guitar? You get bitter.
After over two decades of consistently brilliant work, the Coens have released their darkest, most melancholy film. And it’s their only film that doesn’t feature a single on-screen death. And it’s only their second film about the romance of artistry. In Barton Fink, the titular character is a screenwriter who has writer’s block in a rundown hotel somewhere between Los Angeles and Hell. The romance of being a writer sweeps Fink’s neighbor, Charlie Meadows, right off his feet. The romance of writing for the “pictures” negates any of the ugly qualities Barton exhibits, like his arrogance, his pontifications on “the common man,” and his penchant for narcissism. Charlie forgives all of these negative traits because Fink is an artist.
In Barton Fink, the Coens have written a film about the least interesting character within it. You have Mayhew, the Faulkner-esque writer whose alcoholism has forced his secretary, Audrey Taylor, to write most of his books. You have Charlie Meadows, an actual demon who has been killing and beheading people all over the United States. You have the hilarious screwball detectives who pin some murders on Barton. You have Chet, the hotel concierge who appears to do every job in the building. You have the larger-than-life Hollywood producer with his mousy assistant. You have the literary agent whose ego fills every room he’s in.
And then you have Barton Fink himself. A quiet, empty, arrogant, smarmy writer who can’t seem to find any material. The Coens characterize the writer as being the worst type of person–intentionally blind.
Barton Fink was written while the Coens worked on the script for Miller’s Crossing. They’d hit a dead end with the material and couldn’t figure out a way to go on. On the heels of Raising Arizona and Blood Simple, they had a lot to live up to, and Miller’s Crossing (a complete tonal and narrative shift from their previous efforts) wasn’t shaping up to be such. When a writer hits a block, the job becomes torturous. Are you even an artist if you can’t produce? That frustration is Hell. So that’s how the Coens wrote it.
Fast-forward twenty years, and Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most critically successful filmmakers in the history of the medium. What do they have to complain about?
Nothing, really, except that, perhaps, they’ve started to feel the artifice of their own work.
Since O Brother, Where Art Thou? the brothers have consistently made remakes (The Ladykillers), adaptations(No Country for Old Men), and remakes of adaptations (True Grit). Even A Serious Man, a fairly autobiographical and personal work for the brothers, is loosely based on the story of Job in Genesis. Burn After Reading, their most wholly original film since Fargo (which asserts to be based on true events, even though it isn’t), is also their least critically successful film to date.
That’s what happens when you make a lot of movies. Your original ideas get muddied with the ideas of others.
Inside Llewyn Davis itself is based on the life of Dave Van Ronk and others like him–folk singers who didn’t make it, but it’s also perhaps the most personal film the Coens have ever made. Even more than Barton Fink, which obscures its truth in the center of a mythic tale of biblical proportions, Inside Llewyn Davis tackles the romance of art and kills it once and for all.
There are no sensational murders. No rat-a-tat dialogue that the Coens are famous for. No visual or aural playfulness. Even the color of the film seems to be drained completely.
In one of the most romantic periods of the 20th century, the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early sixties, the Coens have crafted a tale about loss, resentment, anger, pain, loneliness, regret, and reversion. Llewyn is a petty, mooching, selfish mess of a man. He just also happens to be talented at playing guitar and singing. The only problem is that he can’t write new material. And the material he does have can only properly be played with his singing partner, who jumped off the George Washington bridge at some indefinite point in the past.
Llewyn now moves from couch to couch, apartment to apartment, in search of people who still believe in the romance of the art. Those who live by the folksy optimism that the music they play represents. The only problem is that he can’t stand those people. He doesn’t even appear to enjoy folk music anymore.
The dream of hitchhiking with a guitar and playing the Gaslight has become a cyclical, purgatorial existence for Llewyn, displayed by the film’s own cyclical structure (it turns out the entire film is a secret flashback, making the true beginning and end of the film a vague afterthought).
Even the Goldfines, Llewyn’s greatest champions throughout the film, seem to be in a weird purgatorial state in which they always forgive and forget his abhorrent behavior. They’re the only people who seem to even enjoy Llewyn’s company, and yet he essentially steals their cat, humiliates them in front of company, and actively, aggressively attacks them when they ask anything of him.
The romance of playing guitar and singing in some Tribeca apartment is killed by Llewyn, who reduces his art and his talent to a job, likening it to a lecture on Meso-Americans.
While Barton Fink lives in a makeshift Hell located on Sunset Boulevard, Llewyn’s purgatorial state is defined by Llewyn’s own behavior. He has created the state himself in the name of art.
Everybody who wants Llewyn to succeed is subjected to Llewyn’s most potent venom. The owner of the Gaslight loses the protective and scared atmosphere of his club by Llewyn’s own “I hate folk music!” heckling, the Goldfine’s are repeatedly humiliated, and Jean (of Jean & Jim) must get an abortion because of Llewyn’s own irresponsibility.
In fact, the only living thing that Llewyn cares about is a stray cat he’s found on the streets of New York, and he leaves it to die in a car with Roland Turner (John Goodman).
Or did he leave the cat at all? Isn’t Roland Turner just Llewyn’s older self?
Of course, I don’t think the movie has a literal time-warp in its periphery that suggests Roland and Llewyn are the same person, but Turner obviously exists as some sort of caution for Llewyn as he heads in the direction he’s going.
Turner is a bitter, angry, drug-addicted laze who alienates and insults all those around him. The only other person who comes close to Turner’s savagery is Llewyn himself, who must see some familiarity in Turner’s face. After all, what good is a purgatorial space if you don’t see the shattered remains of yourself externalized somewhere else?
As Justin Timberlake’s Jim represents the commercial, happy alternative Llewyn could have chosen, Turner represents the “romantic” offering of “staying true to yourself” as an artist. Both of these are extreme examples, as both “Please Mr. Kennedy” and Turner’s overdose don’t seem to be anywhere on Llewyn’s radar, but the sacrifices on both characters’ accounts are totally possible for his future as a performer.
Llewyn exists in the most ideological, romanticized period in American music, and his existence is melancholy, turbulent, and endless.
And to put salt in the wound, Llewyn, at the beginning and end of the film, has unknowingly opened for one of the most successful singer-songwriters of all time, who just happens to look and sound like Llewyn himself.
In structuring the film around this monumental night–the night in which Bob Dylan was introduced to the world–the Coens are retroactively sucking the romance out of one of the most written-about events in American music.
They themselves have projected the resentment we can all feel as artists and revealed the mediocrity in even the greatest of eras. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris attempted to critique the false idealization of a time in a similar way, but to much less success.
As far as human disappointment goes, has anybody captured the anger of the “common man” better than Joel and Ethan Coen?