Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman
With about 15 minutes to go into this film, I thought I had it figured out. I embraced this film as a depiction of an artist struggling with failure both personal and professional. I understood Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) to be someone who had experienced enough success as a folk singer to find walking away from it unbearable, and yet, the struggle to keep going as an artist was wearing him down. As he explains to Jean (Carey Mulligan) why he has decided to return to life as a merchant marine, “I’m just so tired.”
Being a sort of failed artist myself, who had had just enough success to think it worth continuing far too long, Llewyn Davis was a sympathetic character even as he is portrayed as being a total “shit.” I empathized with the way factors beyond his control had kept success from him, but I also recognized the myriad of ways he repeatedly undermined himself by speaking when he should remain quiet and by scoffing at what was expected for the sake of a misplaced integrity.
I recognized myself in Llewyn Davis in way not everyone would. It was a darker echo of my thoughts on Frances Ha, another soliloquy on failure and awkwardness. One of the best scenes is Llewyn trying to explain to his sister how painful it is to contemplate no longer being an artist as it is losing his reason for being. We watch him struggle as he knows that everything he says about his pain is offensive to her, a critique of her and most people everywhere. He equates a steady middle class job with “merely existing” and she fires back, “Is that what non show biz people do? Merely exist? It’s not so bad, you know, merely existing.” Isaac is brilliant as he stumbles along that line, trying to connect but finding it impossible because explaining himself means hurting her and insulting their working class father. How do you tell someone, “I’m terrified my life will be exactly like yours?”
Llewyn’s pain is real and the film gets that across. His failure, for as rarified as it might be, is a real failure and we know that he will feel it the rest of his life. Having seen his struggle, fear, and pain, all that was left was to see how the film would end. Would Llewyn really walk away from music? Would he get some sort of break? Neither seemed appropriate. But then the Coen brothers did what the Coen brothers do, they made it deeper. The final 5 minutes of the film changed what was meaningful about the film because the final five minutes of the film is, for the most part, the first five minutes of the film. Sort of. It’s the “sort of” that haunts.
At the beginning of the film we see Llewyn Davis playing at the Gas Light club. He plays “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” apologizes to the club owner for a past night’s transgression and then is directed to the alley to meet a “friend in a suit.” At this point a mysterious man accuses Llewyn of running his mouth during a show and assaults him. We never see the man’s face. He walks away mumbling about how he’s leaving this “cesspool” to Llewyn. Cut to Llewyn waking up.
At the end of the film we see Llewyn playing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gas Light, this time followed by his one song of note, “If I Had Wings.” A song he had some success with as part of a duo with his friend Mike Timlin. He exits the stage and makes the same apology to the club owner, only this time we know it was for causing a scene after finding out that Jean had slept with the club owner in order to get a gig. He is then directed to the alley, takes the same beating. We hear the same mumbling, but this time the scene is extended. Llewyn crawls to the edge of the alley in time to see the stranger get into a taxi a take off around the corner. Llewyn ends the film, holding his bruised stomach in obvious pain, smiles slightly, and forces almost cheerfully, “Au revoir.”
Now it would be easy enough to say that this extended scene is the same scene from before and that the entire film was a flashback of the events leading to his beating in the alley. Sure, but why? And what is the meaning of Llewyn ending the film with “Au revoir,” literally, “Until I see you again?” He had never spoken French before that. Since we’ve seen this scene twice already, the farewell hangs strangely in the air as the credits roll. Are we back to the beginning or was this always the end? Is he going to see his assailant yet again?
The closing of the circle like this made me rethink the entire film. What did I just watch? Throughout Llewyn is confronted by a myriad of characters who all share some level of despair but who all deal with it differently. We find out early that Llewyn has had an affair with Jean despite her relationship with and Llewyn’s friendship to Jim. Llewyn later accuses her of being a “careerist” using folk music as a ticket the suburbs. Later we find out that it’s worse than that as Jean has slept with the club owner for the sake of a gig. She has literally traded herself for some small measure of success. Or maybe her affairs are her escape from the dreary life of financial security she seeks. In any case, we leave knowing that Jean is not Llewyn who is after something other than comfort.
Llewyn’s sister has the life of middle class respectability, and as I mentioned before sounds notes of offense when Llewyn begins to explain why that life is so dreadful to him. She merely exists, but again, “It’s not so bad.” She has a kid who makes pictures for Uncle Llewyn and lives in a Levittown style neighborhood. But this life leads to Llewyn’s father, who is in a nursing home and appears to lack awareness of the world around him. He has worked his entire life only to find himself anonymous even to himself. Llewyn plays a song he used to like, “Shoals of Herring.” The song details the fisherman’s life and the “Shoals of Herring,” a kind of fisherman’s paradise. It is no accident that when Isaac sings it, his intonation made me wonder if he wasn’t saying “Shores of Heaven.” Llewyn’s father appears to come alive as he sings, but we learn that he was simply soiling himself.
Alternatively there is John Goodman’s engaging turn as the dandyish old jazz musician who escapes into heroin at every roadside stop and puts himself to sleep. For a film about folk culture in early 60’s Greenwhich Village, drugs are surprisingly absent from Llewyn Davis, reserved for Goodman’s jazzman. It was a nice touch by the Coen’s to hire Garrett Hedlund as Goodman’s driver. There is an homage to Hedlund’s turn as Dean Moriarty in On the Road as we see Hedlund play Johnny Five, young hipster driver for a Goodman always on the nod. But their journey ends stalled, literally, drugs the failed avenue for escape from life’s wretchedness.
Even the upper class friends of Llewyn, the Gorfeins, seem to plot escape from their dreary Upper Class lives of privilege, choosing to associate with a rather ungrateful Llewyn for what we can only assume is their desire to appear more hip than they actually are. They are always having guests, and are always happy to showcase Llewyn as their musician friend from the Village. At first we might be led to think Llewyn is using them as he sleeps on their couch as a place of last resort, imposing on their hospitality, but through Llewyn we see that they are using him, showing him off as a kind of party favor in order to escape their own image as privileged elites hopelessly out of touch.
And of course, there is his partner’s suicide. The ultimate form of escape from a dreary life. We know nothing of why Mike TImlin jumped from the George Washington bridge, only that he did some point before the film. But after seeing Llewyn’s struggles (he doesn’t even have an apartment of his own), it is not hard to fathom why. In fact, when a promoter suggests Llewyn get back together with his partner not knowing about the suicide, Llewyn simply says, “That’s probably a good idea.”
So what do we have? Middle class materialism. Careerism. Upper class posing. Faith in Paradise. Drugs. Suicide. All means of escaping what Hunter S. Thompson called “Brutal, meat hook reality.” Where is the tragedy here? Llewyn is our hero, but he is an odd kind of hero. He is our hero not because he succeeds, he doesn’t. He is our hero merely because he doesn’t escape. The end thrusts him back to the beginning, where his choices reappear and he makes them all over again. “Au Revoir” he says to the life which has beaten him. “I will see you again, and again, and again.” The pain is not enough to break him.
Llewyn Davis is a Sisyphus constantly rolling the boulder up the hill. And even as he thinks of leaving, whether through suicide or the steady drudgery of work-a-day nihilism, we know that he won’t. He affirms the repetition of his fate because it is his. This is what Nietzsche called affirmation of the eternal return. It is why, according to Camus, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Likewise, through it all we must imagine Llewyn Davis happy because everything that happens is his own, and we see him recognize it and affirm it with his final “Au revoir.” We would rather see him struggle and fail again as an artist than watch him give it up and pursue any of the flights his friends and family have taken. We want to see it all again, even the beating, anything else would be despair.