By John Carvill | Press Play March 25, 2014 at 3:23PM
The outsider status of Inside Llewyn Davis’s main character makes it apt that this film, despite being one of the best released last year, was shunned by the Oscars. The Oscars are, in any case, sort of a double bind: nomination for (or even winning) an Oscar is a bit like being hailed as intelligent by the village idiot: no big compliment if it happens, yet still a biting insult if it doesn’t. Being embraced by the Academy is no enviable artistic achievement, and may not even offer a guarantee of more financial support or industry clout; yet being ostracised isn’t an accepted badge of artistic honour either, and most big names in the industry do seek and cherish those little golden statuettes. What is it about this film then that, despite all its many artistic merits, ruled it out of consideration for all the big prizes? Is it the setting, and its inhabitants: the proto-hippies and bearded folkies of the early 60s folk scene? Is it the protagonist, a grumpy, misanthropic beatnik? Is it the downbeat tone, or the lack of an unambiguously happy ending? Or is it the Coens themselves, still seen as arch, intellectual, and overly ironic?
Oscar Isaac is perfect as Llewyn, his mien a fluid but implacable blend of hangdog rancour and world-weary disdain. It’s a bittersweet, gently rebarbative performance that ebbs and flows between sympathetic and repellent. Llewyn’s actions are rarely laudable, his personality never aspires to ‘clubbable’, and it would be easy to see him as a parasite—bumming cigarettes and sleeping with his friends’ girlfriends. And, as it happens, a lot of people do see him that way. Everybody he meets seems to feel that Llewyn is kind of an asshole, and it’s a general consensus from which Llewyn himself seems reluctant to demur. But somewhere in the ineffable amalgam of character and performance, there is something that snags our sympathy and keeps us from despising him. If we don’t quite cheer for this curmudgeonly underdog antihero, we at least murmur half-hearted approval as he shuffles disconsolately from one unedifying episode to the next. So it’s easy to see, perhaps, that a film based around such a character would be unlikely to get the Academy’s juices flowing: there’s no character arc, no repentance, no sense of cinematic bildungsroman.
Isaac’s performance is doubly impressive in that the folk singing segments aren’t fudged: Isaac is called upon to deliver full song performances, and he puts them over very convincingly. Given that it’s crucial to the character, and the plot, that we share Llewyn’s uncertainty over whether he has what it takes to make it or not, the performances are exquisitely balanced on the very edge of being remarkable: they’re impressive, and certainly very enjoyable in their own right, but they leave us wondering about whether they are quite good enough to suggest a special talent at work. But whatever the merits of his musical performances, it’s Isaac’s perpetually downcast, warily resentful demeanour that defines the role. Isaac—his forename an ironic, Academy-nudging insult handed down by God—had serious competition in the Best Actor category this year, but to exclude him from the nominations entirely adds further unnecessary proof of what a joke the Oscars really are.
That the central performance is so strong is fortunate, given the inescapable fact that some of the supporting cast could be better. Justin Timberlake—a member of the entertainment industry about as simpatico with early 60s Greenwich Village folk singers as George W Bush was with Nelson Mandela—acquits himself adequately in a role that suits his chronic lack of gravitas; playing Llewyn’s folksinger friend Jim, Timberlake is gauche and nerdy, and it’s okay because the character suits the actor so well. Carey Mulligan, however, is woefully miscast as Jim’s (musical and romantic) partner Jean. Given to the kind of shrill overacting that threatens to tear the cinema screen in two, Mulligan’s worst scene of all comes when she and Llewyn stroll through Washington Square Park, discussing the fact that she is pregnant but, since she once had a fling with Llewyn, cannot be certain who the father is. Spitting vitriol, she berates Llewyn for forcing her into the agonising predicament whereby she may have to “get rid of a perfectly good baby” because she can’t be certain it’s Jim’s. Slowly, calmly, Llewyn asks her: “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘It takes two to tango’?” To which she pithily replies, “Fuck you.” The contrast between the two performances is irreducibly stark: Isaac is nuanced and underplayed; Mulligan is slip-shod and histrionic. It’s sufficiently bad that it raises the question of why the Coens didn’t ask her to turn it down several notches, or even the horrific possibility that they did ask her, and this was the toned-down version. The role is totally wrong for Mulligan, and her performance is terribly wrong for the film. To top it all off, she sports a ridiculous haircut, which makes her look like something out of a parody folk musical—"The Rutles do Greenwich Village." On the other hand, the contrasts between Jean and Llewyn, and between Mulligan and Isaac, serve to underscore the sense of alienation and outsider status inherent in Llewyn’s character.
The Coens themselves were once Hollywood outsiders and, although that no longer applies, with this film it's almost as though they've come full circle; which in itself is fitting, given the circular narrative structure of the film. The Academy’s attitude to the Coens could perhaps best be summarized as: “Hey, are these guys putting us on?” The answer, of course, is: “If you have to ask…” Perhaps the Academy feel betrayed? By embracing ‘Fargo’ back in the mid-Nineties, they let the Coens inside the tent, only to find that they kept on taking the piss.
Like the novels of Thomas Pynchon, or the lyrics of Bob Dylan, the Coen Brothers’ films teasingly invite interpretation and analysis. In the case of the Coens, there’s no need to diligently examine the warp and weft of their narrative in order to discover intriguing patterns or idiosyncratic braidings: loose threads poke out everywhere, and it’s up to us to decide whether we should grasp at them or not. Those of us of analytic bent may opt to tug at such threads, hoping that unravelling them will provide us with a clew we can use to navigate our way through the connotative labyrinth, and thus find our way to the core. Sometimes, we can’t help falling for such ideas, even though we’re fully aware of the distinct possibility that, even if we did find our way to the heart of the maze, all we’d find there would be a mocking question mark scrawled upon the wall.
Not that we can legitimately complain if we do find ourselves being led up the garden path, on a hiding to nothing: if the Coens’ films offer rich pickings for the analytically inclined, they also provide fair warning to the unwary. There’s an almost palpable sense of sly mockery attendant, as if the Coens are playing a sort of ontological peek-a-boo with their audiences. This is perfectly crystalised in the moment mid-way through this film when Llewyn Davis, a marginal figure on the early Sixties Greenwich Village folk circuit, finds himself undertaking a kind of yo-yoing, sideways road-trip. Half-way between New York and Chicago, he encounters a piece of service station toilet stall graffiti that offers the jeering enquiry: “What are you doing?” Needless to say, there’s no reason to ask who might have scrawled that latrine wall taunt: it was of course the film-makers themselves, winking at our hard-wired tendency to look for hidden meanings, symbolism, and allegories.
Interestingly, the plots of the Coens’ films frequently conform (albeit loosely and with wry idiosyncrasy) to the conventions of the classic quest narrative, featuring tormented central characters who are searching for meaning, or just trying to feel their way through a fog of confusion and uncertainty. These characters generally labour under onerous burdens, which typically gain weight as their stories proceed. They aren’t heroes, or even protagonists as such; they blunder and muddle through, often trudging in circles in the forlorn hope of generating momentum and finding some tangent of escape. With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens have given us one of their most elaborately encumbered characters to date. Llewyn can’t catch a break. He’s broke, he’s homeless, and his folk music career is going nowhere. He has no winter coat, no real friends, and his former singing partner—with whom Llewyn recorded a folk album entitled "If We Had Wings"—has opted to rid himself of his earthly burdens by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Llewyn received no advance from the record company for his debut solo album, the titular "Inside Llewyn Davis," and has as yet seen no royalties from it whatsoever. He’s disenchanted with the folk scene, and the scene seems fairly sick of Llewyn too. As the film opens, we see Llewyn finishing off a set at the legendary Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village; informed by the owner that a ‘friend’ is waiting for him outside, Llewyn exits by the stage door into a back alley where he receives a vicious beating from a stranger. Artistically exhausted, socially ostracised, financially embarrassed, bruised and bleeding: this is how we find Llewyn at the start of his story, and we watch him roll downhill from there, accruing an ever-expanding ball of woes and indignities, as though he were some sort of human dung beetle.
If Llewyn ever had any propensity for good luck, it ran out long ago. When he crashes with some bohemian academics on the Upper West Side, he gets locked out and saddled with a cat; when he dosses at his downtown friends’ ramshackle apartment he has to sleep on the floor because somebody else has already booked the couch; worse still, that somebody turns out to be a soldier—a “killing machine” as Llewyn sees him—on leave from Fort Dix, who not only has a gig at the Gaslight but also the promise of a lucrative management contract when he finishes his military service. In one of the film’s most exuberant scenes, Llewyn joins in with a session at Columbia Records, where a thrown-together pop group named "The John Glenn Singers" records a corny, space-themed novelty record called "Please Mr. Kennedy." Eschewing royalties so he can instead acquire an immediate cash payment, Llewyn henceforth has to endure people delightedly informing him that the record is going to make him rich, since it’s destined to be a hit. To add insult to injury, once he has the money from the recording session, he discovers that his need for a significant amount of ready cash wasn’t quite as pressing as he thought, for reasons that only serve to further complicate his already deeply fraught personal life. For Llewyn, every proverbial cloud turns out to have an even darker lining. He trudges disconsolately around downtown Manhattan, puffing out a cumulus of disgruntlement.
Soon after, Llewyn finds himself visiting Chicago mainly for want of anything better to do or anywhere more promising to go; but he also knows that while he’s there he might take the opportunity to seek a resolution to the central question of his current existence: whether he really is the struggling artist he takes himself for, or just struggling, full stop. Chicago is home to the ‘Gate of Horn’ nightclub, presided over by Bud Grossman, a kingpin impresario and manager whose imprimatur would set Llewyn on the right side of the precipitous divide between nascent and no-hoper, up-and-coming or down-and-out. Llewyn isn’t like Bob Dylan – a fledgling genius taking his first bounding steps – but a journeyman who has talent and commitment but no way of knowing whether what he has will be enough to make the grade. If Bud gives him the nod, then his troubles – or, at least, those ones specifically related to his artistic ambitions – will be over.
Bud Grossman is broadly based on Albert Grossman, the folk music fixer who became Bob Dylan’s famously hard-nosed manager, although he is portrayed here (by a gnomically distinguished F. Murray Abraham) in a way that is pretty much unrecognisable for anyone whose image of the real Grossman derives from Dylan biographies or those scenes in "Don’t Look Back" wherein Grossman hectors, bullies, brutalises, and connives his way through a Sixties Britain that seems quaint, somnambulant, and utterly unprepared for the brashly cynical American. The Gate of Horn was in fact a real club, run by the real Grossman, but it’s also a reference to a potent piece of mythology referenced in Homer’s Odyssey, relating to the ability to distinguish between dreams which will come true and those that are merely illusory. So it’s almost unbearably apt that this is the venue where Llewyn will learn - via an audience with the all-powerful Grossman - whether his hopes of bigger things will be dashed or buoyed up.
Real-life figures like Grossman and Dave Van Ronk (whose memoir, ‘The Mayor of MacDougal Street’, provided inspiration for some elements of Llewyn’s story), loom larger in the background to the film. And of course the spirit of Bob Dylan broods over proceedings, just as the ghost of Bogart haunted ‘The Big Lebowski’, the Coens’ lysergic neo-noir pastiche. (We get a fleeting glimpse of the young Dylan, starting into a set just after Llewyn has left the stage. We don’t get to see what Llewyn thinks of Dylan, because Llewyn doesn’t get to see Dylan; instead, he goes out into the alley to receive a beating. Given the unlikelihood of Llewyn’s ego withstanding exposure to the cataclysmically talented Bob Dylan, it’s probable that Llewyn would prefer a physical going-over than an audience with the young Minnesotan.) Approaching the film from a strictly historical viewpoint, or subjecting it to the corrosive magnifying glass lens of Dylanology, would doubtless uncover many intriguing details. For instance, Bud Grossman’s advice to Llewyn that he should “stay out of the sun”, which is based on the instruction that the real Albert Grossman gave to Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary: suntanned folkies don’t sell. But such approaches would ultimately prove themselves to be blind alleys. The film needs to be considered on its own terms; it’s not a biopic or a mere period piece.
The Coens have said that the visual aesthetic for their film was founded upon the cover art for Dylan’s 1963 album ‘The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan’, which featured Dylan and his then girlfriend-and-muse Suze Rotolo huddling together down a frozen Jones Street in Manhattan, Dylan opting to brave the elements in a suede jacket because he wanted to look cool, whereas Llewyn is freezing because he has no winter coat to shed. The production design and period evocation are second to none, way above what would normally be expected from Sixties-set movies, or indeed the much-lauded likes of AMC’s ‘Mad Men’, etc. That said, the film’s conjuring of time and place doesn’t quite feel rough enough around the edges - the interior of the Gaslight Café, for example, can hardly have been so pleasing to the eye, or as free from the fug of cigarette smoke, as it appears here. This is one of the best-looking films the Coen Brothers have made, lacking the spectacular set-pieces we’ve come to expect, but offering instead an understated yet no less powerful beauty that is rich, seductive, and poetic. The colour scheme leans heavily towards coppery greens, cobalt blues, and inky blacks, and does indeed have something of an affinity with that iconic album cover, even if Llewyn himself is not so much "freewheelin" as "stuck in first gear."
Visually, the links to Dylan’s 1963 album "The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan" are obvious, but if you wanted to make comparisons, based on thematic or tonal affinities, between this film and a particular Dylan album, then a much more appropriate choice would be Dylan’s gnarly, counterculture-antipathetic masterpiece "John Wesley Harding," from 1967. And it’s safe to say that neither Dylan album is likely to be found among many of the Academy members’ record collections; this is not the sort of pop culture that floats their boat. Bob Dylan resonances are probably not the most obvious way of attracting Oscar nominations, given the average age, and archaic sensibilities, of the judges. Like "John Wesley Harding," the Coens’ film is stylised yet stripped down; the feel is wintry, the humor fit for the gallows, the mood dark and portentous. Most fittingly of all, as with the angular fables recounted on Dylan’s album, key narrative details of "Inside Llewyn Davis" are left just vague enough to preclude any stabilizing sense of certainty. A case in point is the precise nature of the relationship between Llewyn and the Gorfeins, the tolerant Upper West Side academics with whom Llewyn crashes when he has “rotated through all my Greenwich Village friends.” The Gorfeins may or may not be the parents of Llewyn’s former singing partner, Mike Timlin, who has committed suicide before the film begins. (Yes, they have different surnames, but the film is full of characters with assumed names.) Alone in the Gorfeins’ apartment one morning, Llewyn locates a copy of the Timlin and Davis album ‘If We Had Wings’, and in a rare moment of apparent caring about another human being, lingers for a second over the photo of Mike on the rear of the album jacket; when Llewyn later sings the album’s title track at one of the Gorfeins’ dinner parties, Lillian Gorfein (wonderfully played by Robin Bartlett) joins in singing “Mike’s part”, which sends Llewyn into a rage that capsizes the evening. Llewyn later apologies to Lillian’s husband, Mitch, who readily forgives Llewyn, but reminds him that Mike’s death left “a big hole”. These are strong hints, but they offer nothing conclusive. Other plot elements are left the same way, like partially completed join-the-dot pictures. Again, this sort of thing is likely to confuse Academy members, at best.
The narrative technique also bears certain similarities to that employed on "John Wesley Harding," most notably the structure of "All Along the Watchtower." The film begins—like The Odyssey—in medias res, with Llewyn performing at the Gaslight; from there, the narrative, seemingly linear at first, gradually reveals itself to in fact be tracing a long slow curve back around to where it began. As does Dylan’s ‘Watchtower’, a song that would surely appeal to Llewyn’s astringent personality, in which the narrative curls around like a Möbius strip, so that the song’s ostensible ending attaches directly to its opening lyrics: the howling wind at the end of the song actually comes before the conversation between "the joker" and "the thief" that kicks off the track. The sense of being trapped in a cyclic reality, desperately searching for “some kind of way out of here” is one with which Llewyn could readily identify, as is the suggestion that “life is but a joke”. As in Dylan’s song, the narrative of the Coens’ film swallows its own tail, and this is puckishly signified by a bravura fadeout from the mysterious stranger who gives Llewyn a beating in the alley at the beginning of the film, to the tail of the Gorfeins’ cat as it pads down the hallway of their apartment, on its way to wake up Llewyn. Does this imply that the morning to which the cat awakens Llewyn is the morning after the alleyway beating? Maybe, but in the end it’s impossible to say for sure. In a characteristically Coen Brothers piece of gimmickry, the Gorfeins’ cat, which is just one of a number of cats in the film - again, we cannot be certain how many—turns out be named Ulysses, suggesting itself as an avatar for Llewyn, and pounding home the Homeric symbolism once more. This again raises the queasy prospect of interpretation and analysis; roughly speaking, the cat occupies a similar place in this film as the hat motif did in Miller’s Crossing. Then again, the Coens are on record as saying that the hat was just a hat, warning that we “mustn’t look for any deep meaning.” It’s piquant to note that the cover of Dave Van Ronk’s album "Inside Dave Van Ronk" depicted the singer standing in a doorway with a cat, but there is probably less to that than meets the eye.
The title Inside Llewyn Davis is an acid, many-layered joke. At the Gate of Horn, Bud Grossman invites Llewyn to play him “something from ‘inside’ Llewyn Davis,” superficially an allusion to the title of Llewyn’s album, but also a coy, needling suggestion that there may not be much of an interior to the character himself. Similar criticisms have been levelled at the Coens over the years: the central complaint boils down to one of style over substance. Of course, people said the same about Citizen Kane. There is a perceived lack of emotion, an absence of character arcs, and a chronic weakness for post-modernist whimsy. Yet this film is full of emotions; it’s just that very few of those emotions are positive. Is it a "Feel-Bad" movie? No, because there’s dark humour aplenty; it is (barely) possible to feel for its characters; and through it all there’s an elegiac feel, a wistful quality that is sprinkled across the icy surface of the film like cigarette ash on the tables of Cafe Reggio.
Like everyone he encounters, possibly including himself, we do wonder if there’s anything much "inside" Llewyn. Rather than being capable of proffering insights into his inner core, Llewyn may even be a stranger to his own heart. “I don’t think I’m tangible to myself,” Dylan once suggested during an interview, and the sense of someone trying to ascertain his own nature is palpable in Oscar Isaac’s performance. Llewyn is the quintessential outsider, alienated from society and even from himself. Llewyn is an outsider in Greenwich Village, since his attitude to folk music departs significantly from his happy clappy mainstream peers; Llewyn favours the more blues-inflected, existentialist folk songs about death and loss, rather than the inclusive, upbeat end of the folk spectrum represented by Jim & Jean. He’s also an outsider around his own family, and ill-suited to the line of work once pursued by his father: the merchant marine is a refuge of last resort for Llewyn, and even then his path is far from smooth. He’s too rough-hewn for the Village, and too effete for the hiring hall. Ironically, the "day job" of merchant seaman is an appropriate one, since traditional sea shanties and songs of lovers tearfully taking their leave for long ocean voyages formed important strands in the roots of the folk music that Llewyn holds so dear. The sea journey theme also churns up further Homeric resonances.
Could it be that the Coens see something of themselves in Llewyn? This may seem unlikely given their success and established place in show business; but they were once outsiders too, cult filmmakers prior to the mainstream success of ‘Fargo’ in 1996. Every artist, even Dylan, was once a would-be, and each faces the prospect—however remote—that they might one day be a has-been. Once attained, success may seem inevitable in retrospect, but prior to success there’s always the doubt—sometimes in the background, sometimes all-consuming—that fate holds nothing but failure. Every artist can empathize with those who are still struggling, those who wonder whether they just need a lucky break or whether the entire creative impulse is a false hope, a siren call that would best be avoided lest it lures them towards time-wasting and fruitless quests for an artistic validity that is forever out of reach. This is Llewyn’s central quandary; well, that and the need to develop some empathy for other people.
Overall, the film does seem an awkward fit with contemporary cinema, and in some ways feels more redolent of the best contemporary television series, where offbeat sensibilities, character depth, and auteurist vision are given free reign. In its presentation of a doubtfully sympathetic central character, as well as the gently post-modernist trickery of the narrative, in some respects the film feels closer to series such as ‘Breaking Bad’ than to many of the nominees for Best Picture such as ‘Gravity’ or ‘Captain Philips’. Of course it’s not long and baggy like those multiple-series TV shows, but it is adult and allusive and challenges the viewer in ways that many of the films nominated for Best Picture resolutely refuse to do.
This takes us into the murky waters that lap around the debate over contemporary cinema’s relevance and prospects for the future. Given the trend towards more intelligent, expansive, and literary-minded TV shows, and the Netflix-led phenomenon whereby media conduits are creating their own content, Llewyn and Hollywood actually have more in common than might meet the eye: times are changing and mainstream Hollywood is standing still, stuck in a rut, bemusedly watching the sand drain out of the hourglass. The truth is, though, that reports of cinema’s death at the hands of a resurgent wave of quality television, have (at best) been greatly exaggerated. Partly this is because cinema still has a few tricks up its sleeve, partly it’s due to the fact that these widely acclaimed TV shows aren’t quite as impressive as people seem to think. Breaking Bad was good, yes, but it had over sixty hours to play with, and if distilled to ninety minutes it wouldn’t rival the best of contemporary cinema. House of Cards, the big paradigm-shifting Netflix show, worked fine for one season (though it lacked the 100-proof venom of the British original), but series two unravelled alarmingly into water treading and shark jumping. The indisputable apotheosis of the modern televisual era was HBO’s The Sopranos, but that show finished back in 2007, has yet to be rivalled by any subsequent series, and was in any case basically a TV incarnation of a Scorsese movie: GoodFellas: The TV Show.
So let’s agree that cinema isn’t on the ropes quite yet. Indeed, 2013 was a particularly strong year, and although the omission of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ from all the major award categories was a grotesquely poor judgment call on the part of the Academy, many of the films, actors, and directors that were nominated were very much deserving of acclaim. On the other hand, the members of the Academy need to realize that rather than shunning films such as the Coens’ in favour of anodyne blockbusters like Gravity, they ought to be embracing the offbeat and the idiosyncratic, conquering their addiction to black-and-white morality and succumbing to the deeper pull of ambiguity and nuance. If they want to survive, that is. So as we continue to digest that interminable, glitz-encrusted ceremony during which the people with the worst taste on the planet told us what they thought the best films of last year were, and while we ponder the future of Hollywood, and cinema itself, we should be equally ready to meet any claim that cinema is being superseded by television, or any suggestion that Inside Llewyn Davis deserved its outsider status as the spectre at the Oscars feast, with an echo of the admonitory words spoken by Bob Dylan’s joker to the thief in "All Along the Watchtower": Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.
John Carvill is a journalist who lives in the United Kingdom. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Popmatters, and elsewhere; he is the editor of the online journal Oomska.