"I don't see a lot of money here."
With these simple words — oh, the tiny scornful emphasis on the word "money"! — unimpressed impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), after a beat of immaculate unreadability, casually snuffs out the already sputtering flame of Llewyn Davis' musical ambitions. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) has a shoe full of slush, a married lover about to abort her child on the off-chance it might be his, and a date with a beating in an alleyway. And on his way to meet it, he will hit and probably kill a cat that may or may not be the same one he abandoned earlier. If the nameless animal's fate, and its identity, will forever exist in a state of uncertainty (let's just call this second cat Schroedinger and be done with it), from this point in the movie, there is no such uncertainty about Llewyn's trajectory. He is never going to make it.
With "Inside Llewyn Davis," which arrives on the Criterion Collection this month, the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers, perhaps the most broad-terms successful American independent filmmakers of our time, made a film about failure. Having enjoyed a near-unprecedented level of consistent respect as artists, they wrote a story about an artist faced with consistent peer indifference. They cast imminent megastar Oscar Isaac, now a lynchpin of the America's highest-grossing film of all time, as this also-ran, this nearly-man, this future obscurity. Into a vortex of high expectations, as the Cannes-competing follow-up to the Coens' biggest-ever box office hit "True Grit," which netted them 10 Oscar nominations, came a movie that deals almost exclusively in the currency of disappointment.
Critics adored it. Well, the majority did, enough to have the film hold a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though safe to say J.Hoberman was not among them. And a small section of the moviegoing public was just as worshipful, giving it a remarkable per-screen average when it opened in limited release. But then, when it expanded, general audiences largely stayed away, maxing its domestic gross out at just over $13 million — far less than 1/10th the take of "True Grit" and just under half that of the inarguably lesser "Burn After Reading."
I don't see a lot of money here.
It would seem, not to retrospectively credit them with God-level metatextual creative integrity or anything, that the Coens made a film about self-defeat that kind of self-defeated. But of course, there are reasons other than what-it's-about that contributed to its financial underperformance — chief among them the absence of marquee stars and the lack of big-studio backing. As far as marketing pushes go, CBS Films can't compete with the likes of Paramount, whose gamble on "True Grit" paid off so handsomely. But there are also narrative factors at work that both made it hard to get people into theaters to see it, and made it so valued by those who did.
So it didn't make a lot of money, and it's about things we'd rather not talk about — is it any wonder that, certainly prior to Criterion affixing their seal of approval, 'Llewyn Davis' was heading for classification as inessential, a "minor" Coens film? It's minor-key, certainly — but in the quietest, most ruefully autumnal manner possible, it might also be their bravest and most unique film. A grand claim perhaps, so let's go one grander: In form and in theme, "Inside Llewyn Davis" challenges storytelling norms on a practically subterranean level, burrowing into and gently undermining the foundations of what we, as consumers of American moviemaking in the mid-2010s, think movies are supposed to be like and supposed to be about.
There are the obvious ways the film kicks against traditional three-act movie structure. In a conversation with Guillermo del Toro featured in the extras of the Criterion package, the Coens assert that the idea of starting at the end and bringing us back there through the course of the film was one of the first concepts they thought of. Indeed, the story now goes that the image of a folk singer being beaten in an alley was the kernel of the whole film — grist to the mill of those who accuse the Coens (wrongly) of misanthropy. But even discounting time-manipulation formal trickery, the film's story, told chronologically, is a circle, or at least the first complete circuit in an ever-decreasing spiral.