Llewyn Davis is a perennial loser. The threadbare folk singer who trudges through the slushy streets of the Coen Brothers’ latest cinematic triumph is accustomed to failure. In the bitterly cold New York winter of 1961, however, Llewyn is slouching at a professional and personal nadir. His first solo record following the death of his partner is selling so poorly that he has received zero royalties. He is effectively homeless, surviving on the charity of friends and the meager proceeds from penny-ante gigs. He has systematically alienated his family and colleagues with his churlishness, thoughtlessness, and starving artist pomposity. He has not one but two possible illegitimate children, and may be responsible for the death of his friends’ cat. In short, Llewyn’s existence of late is a cavalcade of foul-ups. Sadly, this is nothing new for the musician. He is so habituated to misfortune that his reaction to each fresh indignity consists of vague disbelief followed by bitter sarcasm, eventually receding to weary resignation.
Inside Llewyn Davis presents roughly one week in the life of its titular singer-songwriter. It is a period that one might generously call “eventful” if it did not come across as dismally typical for Llewyn. Each day he faces more hardship, more opprobrium, and more chances to wound the few people who are still willing to tolerate his presence. Collar turned up against the wind’s snapping teeth, he schleps his guitar case in circles: uptown, downtown, crosstown, cross-country, and back again. Yet he never seems to be moving forward; he’s just treading water.
The Coens underline the sullen sense of déjà vu that characterizes Llewyn’s experiences through the repetition of dialogue, action, and motifs, a familiar method within the Brothers’ filmography. However, the film’s potent sense of entrapment–its “stationary motion,” if you will–is also expressed through its ingenious structure. The film begins and ends with the same vicious scene: Llewyn’s thorough ass-kicking at the hands of a stranger in a snowy, darkened alley. The narrative seam that lies between these bloody bookends–the point at which the story laps itself–passes by unnoticed at first. Gradually, the viewer grows aware of it in hindsight, as it becomes clear that Llewyn’s travails have no beginning and no end. His route is not a circle but a Möbius strip: a twisted path that provides the illusion of advancement. It ruthlessly returns the pilgrim to his starting point, where he once again faces all the obstacles he thought he had overcome.
The Coens have repeatedly interrogated the subjects of defeat, misadventure, and calamity in their work. The shambles that result from the intersection of nefarious motives and sheer stupidity are played for black humor in films such as Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Burn After Reading. A more serious-minded exploration is evident in the filmmakers’ masterful theodicy dyad, No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man. Llewyn bears more than a passing resemblance to the latter film’s hapless protagonist, Larry Gopnik, in that both men are magnets for suffering. However, whereas the whirlwind of woe that afflicts Larry appears suddenly and seemingly without reason, Llewyn’s miseries are both distressingly routine and directly attributable to his own actions.
At times, his missteps are the product of mere short-sightedness. For example, after he impulsively directs his sister Joy to toss his meager possessions out with the garbage, he belatedly discovers a desperate need for his discarded merchant marine license. Just as often, however, Llewyn’s selfishness and prickly arrogance are the culprits. His generous Upper West Side patrons Mitch and Lillian Gorfein provide him with meals and a bed, but when they urge him to perform for their friends, his resentment boils over and lands him back out on the street. Like many of the Coens’ long-suffering protagonists, Llewyn is pitiable but not blameless. Every time the viewer begins to empathize with his plight, he shoots his mouth off and demonstrates that it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.
Defeat has a strange gravity in Llewyn’s world. The bleak yet altogether characteristic week depicted in the film highlights the way that consistent failure can nudge a person into self-destructive patterns. “Do you ever think about the future at all?,” former lover Jean asks him disdainfully (and rhetorically). Repeated disappointment and debacle have collapsed Llewyn’s horizons to a few days. He smugly justifies this by declaring that “blueprinting a future” is hopelessly square, but he isn’t fooling anyone except himself. This self-delusion marks Llewyn as kin to contemporary comic art’s many snarky losers, including those of Brian Lee O’Malley, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, and Jeph Jacques. Like O’Mally’s Scott Pilgrim, Llewyn has become comfortable with his place at the bottom. Both have created self-serving narratives for their lives, stories that bestow them with a victim’s righteousness and absolve them of the need to scrutinize their own behavior.
Still, one can understand why Llewyn would avert his eyes from the future. He knows all too well how unlikely even modest fame and fortune are for a professional folk musician. Meanwhile, his elderly father’s mute dementia provides an unnerving preview of his long-term fate. In lieu of looking forward, Llewyn can only gaze at the past and wonder what might have been. While other people make their plans, he quietly hoards his cynicism and wallows in his regrets. His history is one characterized by fumbled opportunities, botched relationships, and abandoned responsibilities — each an inflection point when he was tested and failed. “Everything you touch turns to shit,” spits Jean, and Llewyn does not contest the point. However, the sorrow that looms the largest cannot be laid at Llewyn’s feet. The suicide of his musical partner, Mike, has engendered a dense grief that Llewyn has buried in alternating strata of feigned indifference and petulant anger. While he is mentioned only briefly in the film, Mike’s absence is plainly crushing Llewyn from within, like a pinpoint black hole embedded in his heart.
Llewyn presents a fascinating case study of despair as a kind of addictive narcotic. Pummeled by seemingly limitless adversity, he has fashioned his misery into a lifestyle. In a sense, Inside Llewyn Davis provides a map of the psychological hazards that surround failure and tragedy. Through Llewyn’s harsh example, the Coens illustrate the risks of allowing oneself to be defined by suffering, to the point where anything positive must be knocked down with an acerbic swipe. Such an approach to life might hold a grungy glamour to the would-be cultural radical, but the endpoint is merely drab, directionless stasis.
This is not to say that Llewyn is merely a risible cautionary example. Indeed, as written by the Coens and given marvelously nuanced life by Oscar Isaac, the musician is a wholly rounded and convincing figure. When the situation warrants, he can be resilient, resourceful, and even contrite. He is perhaps the most recognizably human character in the Coens’ entire oeuvre, a man whose essence lies not in his heroism or villainy (or in quotable one-liners) but in his struggle. He is a distinctly drawn character, yet also a surrogate for the viewer at their lowest moments: unemployment, poverty, rejection, heartbreak, crushed dreams and horrid mistakes. In Llewyn, the viewer can discern a reflection of their own ordeals and failings, as well as the toxic modes of thought and action that could ensnare them into a feedback loop of misery. This deeply personal resonance with the experiences of individual viewers is among Inside Llewyn Davis’ most splendid achievements, and one that marks it as a profoundly incisive, instructive, and humane work of cinema.
Illustration by: Jamie Toon