There’s a poetic rightness to the fact that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” one of the best films of the year, was not nominated for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The latest from the Coen Brothers, “Inside Llewyn Davis” does just about everything it can to alienate voters, starting with the fact that it’s about a raging misanthrope. Like “Her” but in the opposite emotional key, this is another story where form and subject are perfectly mated, and where the story wouldn’t work at all if they were not.
The Coen Brothers have always been interested in losers. But never before have they gotten us so close to the heart of one of those losers, and a loser who knows that he deserves to win, and knows he just isn’t going to, and is consumed by the bitterness of that condition. Like “A Serious Man,” this feels like a very personal film for them, but whereas “A Serious Man” wrestled with origins – specifically their Jewish identity – “Inside Llewyn Davis” wrestles with destiny, and the possibility of not having one.
Played with wonderful naturalism by relative newcomer Oscar Isaac, Llewyn Davis is a folk singer in New York in 1961, right before folk is about to explode out of its niche with the emergence of Bob Dylan. But Llewyn isn’t going anywhere. He can’t afford even a rathole apartment downtown, and crashes on the couches of the vanishingly few New Yorkers who don’t hate his guts. One of them is his more successful friend’s wife (Carey Mulligan, giving a nicely subtle performance – watch her eyes while she sings), who informs him she’s knocked up, possibly by him. Another is an uptown academic couple who are faultlessly generous with him, and whose generosity he rewards by lashing out, cursing, saying he feels like a trained poodle.
He’s got more than his share of rotten luck – beaten up by inexplicably malevolent cowboys, robbed of even his minimal royalties by his rotten manager, trapped for hours on the way to Chicago with an outlandishly insulting old jazz man who won’t stop poking him with his canes (the only out-and-out Coen grotesque in the film, played by John Goodman). But he also makes his own bad luck, telling his sister (Jeanine Serralles) to throw out his old stuff (including his old mariner’s license, which he turns out to need), refusing royalties on a ridiculous novelty song that his friend (the one he cuckolded, played with delightfully deadpan squareness by Justin Timberlake) wrote so that he can get the cash quicker (only to see the song do well), and, when he finally gets a chance to audition for a manager who could really take him places (F. Murray Abraham), picking an obscure and depressing song guaranteed to turn him away. And his response to every piece of bad mazel he suffers is the same, whether he’s obviously implicated or not: a sour conviction that it figures, that the universe has it in for him one way or another.
With one exception. In what is certainly a screenwriting joke (given the ubiquity of Blake Snyder’s book) this deeply unattractive character does one noble thing. He saves a cat. Or tries to. The cat belongs to that uptown couple, and he accidentally lets it out of the apartment, then locks himself out retrieving it. And so he’s stuck with it, loses it again, finds it again – for much of the movie he’s saddled with the burden of saving this cat, and its the one burden he isn’t eager to put down, the one tie he is unwilling to sever. (The cat is ultimately saved without any help from him. It figures.)
The most painful moment of the film is when Llewyn plays a song for his aged and demented father, now residing in a nursing home. The father doesn’t speak – either because he can’t or because he’s long since decided it isn’t worth it. He shows no interest in Davis’s presence – either because he’s forgotten who he is, or because he’d long since given up hope that his wayward son would ever visit. (Or anybody else. His old union buddies all remember him fondly, but none of them know what happened to him, or have troubled to find out.) And then Llewyn plays the song, an old sailor’s song, and you can see his father’s heart breaking. And you can see Llewyn’s bitterness reaching even greater depths than before – because he’s decided to give up playing, and ship out, embrace the destiny of becoming his father. And he’s looking at what his father has become. But fate won’t even let him choose his misery; without his license, he can’t ship out, and back to the Gaslight he goes, to play the same songs he always does, ones that were never new, and never get old, because they’re folk songs.
The arc of the movie doesn’t bend toward anywhere; it literally ends where it began, and there’s no sense that Llewyn has changed either because of the experiences he’s had. And from where he sits, neither he nor the world will ever change; both are too stubborn. (He doesn’t hear the most blatant and obvious sign that the times are indeed a-changin’ – but we do.) It almost isn’t a story; rather, it’s a picture of what it feels like to be trapped in that state of miserable stasis, and to be convinced – with some evidence – that you’ve got more talent than all the nicer guys who are getting ahead of you.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is the Coen Brothers’ portrait of the artist as a young failure. No wonder the Academy voters didn’t like it.
(As an aside: “Inside Llewyn Davis” is supposedly inspired by the life of Dave Van Ronk. Llewyn’s album cover is clearly modeled on Van Ronk’s album, “Inside Dave Van Ronk” from the period. Now, I don’t know what Van Ronk was like in his youth, other than from his own charmingly self-deprecating reminiscences, but I was privileged to see him perform in the mid-‘90s, and he was an absolutely delightful fellow eager to share with the audience, quite the opposite of Llewyn Davis’s comprehensive contempt. If you want to get a feel for Van Ronk, the man and his music, I recommend his late live album, “And the Tin Pan Bended and the Story Ended,” which is about half storytelling and half music and all wonderful.)