HALFTIME REPORT: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

With Halftime Report, your good friends at SportsAlcohol.com revisit some of their favorite films from the first half of this decade.

Hang me, oh, hang me. I’ll be dead and gone.
Hang me, oh, hang me. I’ll be dead and gone.
Wouldn’t mind the hanging, but the laying in the grave so long
Poor boy, I’ve been all around this world.

In 2013, Inside Llewyn Davis was met by film fans with an enthusiastic array of reactions that has become fairly familiar for a new Coen Brothers film (particularly the films they’ve released since 2007’s No Country For Old Men). There’s the poring over their meticulous technique, the debates about where the latest film ranks among the brothers’  oeuvre, speculation about how much the film can be read as personal expression by the famously puckish filmmakers, the debates about how despairing or cynical the film’s worldview truly is AND the attendant speculation about how much of that is sincere and how much is a joke on audiences. This last one is something of an evolution of the charge levied against them from the beginning of their career that they hold their characters (and possibly their audience) in contempt. Like A Serious Man, with its story about midwestern Jews in the 1960s that gave critics the purchase to finally analyze a Coen picture with an eye to their biography, Inside Llewyn Davis‘s story of a man adrift after losing a close friend and artistic partner offered a critical approach that allowed people to sidestep whatever lingering questions they still have about the Coens’ sincerity. Here was a movie working through the guys’ feelings about an imagined scenario where one of them died, leaving the other to muddle on alone. It’s a pretty satisfying reading of the film, and it suggests that we can perhaps also map the movie’s take on art, commerce, and the life of an artist as a similarly personal exploration by a couple of filmmakers who have a strange and interesting outsider relationship with Hollywood. But watching it now, after those initial conversations have subsided, I was struck by the way that it employs a classic Coen Brothers shaggy dog comedy of errors structure to tell their most emotional story, crystallized in perhaps the most devastating moment in any of their films.

A large part of the “the Coens don’t like their characters” narrative comes from the perception of them as chilly, technical guys, building mousetrap plots for a group of contemptible idiots to run through. This argument has always been terribly reductive because it completely misses the fact that the movies are mousetrap plots for a group of lovable idiots to run through. It may be a weird midwestern stoicism that we aren’t used to seeing in American filmmakers, but while the Coens’s films may lack sentimentality, they don’t lack for emotion, and that includes affection. Both their films and their interview personas suggest that they think most people (maybe all people, themselves included) are knuckleheads, but that only translates to contempt if you don’t like knuckleheads. And the way that they’re clearly not averse to granting moments of peace and grace to their heroes, knuckleheads or not, says as much about their feelings for their characters as the cosmic cruelty they’re better known for. Still, Inside Llewyn Davis may be the easiest of their films to pinpoint the emotion in for the simple reason that each time Llewyn sings a song, Oscar Isaac’s (so good here that it inspires a sigh of relief now to note that he’s been finding work worthy of following such a dazzling star turn) beautiful performance betrays a soulfulness that no amount of giggling behind the camera can mask. Isaac makes Llewyn so charismatic and human that we feel for him even as we see that, for all of the cosmic indignities heaped upon him, he’s his own worst advocate (during the week the movie follows him, he’s a bit of an asshole). Perhaps it’s the way those musical performances leave his character uncommonly exposed for a Coen protagonist that makes that devastating moment I mentioned earlier so piercing. And for my money, it isn’t the oft-cited moment after Llewyn plays a song for F. Murray Abraham’s Bud Grossman, in the hopes of booking some gigs or new representation, and Grossman responds with, “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

That moment is a harsh blow, to be sure, to both Llewyn and the audience since we’ve been invited to share in his artistic ambitions and have grown to hope the poor guy can catch a break at some point. But there’s something else bubbling underneath Llewyn’s career struggles, and it is tied to the structural trick the Coens are playing with the opening of their movie. A topic of much discussion when it was originally released, the film opens on Llewyn performing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight and then being beaten in an alley by a man he had apparently angered the night before. We then (probably) flash back a week to see how Llewyn ended up getting punched in that alleyway, returning to that scene at the end of the film. But without a chyron or title card to indicate that we’ve flashed back, the return to the opening scene at the end comes as a surprise and is ambiguous enough that it could also be read as a lurch into Coenesque surreality. Has Llewyn entered some kind of purgatory? Is he living in a loop? There are good arguments for either reading, but the literal answer for what is happening is ultimately irrelevant, because the way it is presented is absolutely correct emotionally. And that’s because of a major character that is not actually present in the film. Throughout the picture, people mention Llewyn’s partner Mike. As it becomes clear that he died, Llewyn’s less appealing character traits (his anger, his weariness, his prickliness) start to come into a different focus. Few details are given in the first half of the film, but while it doesn’t seem to have happened right before the film starts, it does seem like the recent past. Then, fifty four minutes into the movie (almost exactly halfway through the running time), Llewyn tells the jazz musician Roland Turner (a magnificently dissolute John Goodman) what happened to Mike. “He threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.” Llewyn isn’t just mourning his lost friend, he’s grieving somebody who committed suicide.

So show us a bird, flying high above.
Life ain’t worth living, without the one you love.
Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well.
Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well.

All grief is potent and terrible, but the nature of one’s relationship to the deceased and the circumstances in which they died certainly color how the survivors experience it. I can’t claim any expertise in how the professional community charts or discusses grieving (as I imagine the Coens would demur from suggestions of the same), but I do know that Inside Llewyn Davis nails a particular form of it dead to rights. Llewyn’s friend killed himself and, even for somebody as wholly himself as Llewyn, it’s hard not to see that it’s given him (or perhaps just exacerbated) a self-destructive streak.

This brings us back to that moment, the most devastating in all of the Coens films. After Llewyn plays for Bud Grossman (“The Death of Queen Jane,” a beautiful, but somewhat obtuse choice) and Grossman tells him that he doesn’t see the business upside in Llewyn as a solo artist, he mentions that he’s putting together a trio that Llewyn might be good for.

Grossman:    You comfortable with harmonies?
Llewyn:      No. Yes, but no. No, I had a partner.
Grossman:    Uh huh. That makes sense. My suggestion: get back together.
Llewyn:      That’s good advice.

In that moment, the Coens and Isaac express something true and terrible about suicide. It has a gravity to it. It deforms and warps everything around it, and in Inside Llewyn Davis it turns the story from something linear into something more like an orbit. Llewyn spends the entire film falling away from the center, Mike’s suicide, without ever achieving escape velocity (whether to Chicago or the merchant marine or, in a close runner up for Most Devastating Moment, Akron). And that’s how what I described above as “a classic Coen Brothers shaggy dog comedy of errors structure” proves the perfect way to dramatize Llewyn’s grief. The series of scenes where Llewyn deals with money (forgoing royalties on Jim’s novelty song to pay for Jean’s abortion which it turns out has already been paid for; paying his dues to ship out as a merchant marine and then not having the money to replace his license after his sister throws it away) have both a typically Coeny dark comic frisson and a genuine emotional truth in the way he keeps making ill-advised short term decisions to fix problems that don’t need fixing (and in fact screwing up all new things in the process). Llewyn, like most people who have known somebody who committed suicide, doesn’t seem likely to take his own life. But that self-destructive streak, which made sense as just a sad, angry guy lashing out before we learned about Mike, has a new context. Consciously or not, Llewyn spends the movie kicking out support struts, a man with no home or particular career prospects or even a proper coat pushing away the people he cares for, receding from his own life. Most haunting of these again involves a character we hear about but do not see. On his way back from Chicago, he passes a sign for the off-ramp to Akron, where we are told he has an ex-girlfriend and possibly a child. His gaze lingers for a moment on the city off in the distance, the single warmest and most inviting image in the entire film, and then he drives on. Maybe he thinks he doesn’t deserve that second chance. Maybe he’s right. Who knows if he’d be welcomed? (It even seems unlikely, given the pretty fair presumption that he screwed things up badly with Diane). But it’s the only escape he doesn’t actually give a shot, and so it lingers.

And then his orbit brings him back around to that alley. Llewyn isn’t granted a moment of grace in the end of his film in the way that H.I. McDunnough or Marge Gunderson or Ulysses McGill were. As he heads to the alley he passes a young Bob Dylan starting to sing “Farewell,” a harbinger of a world that’s going to replace the one that Llewyn has barely been holding onto. Beaten and bloody, he wryly bids, “Au revoir” to his attacker who has just vowed to leave “this fucking cesspool” to Llewyn as he hails a cab and speeds off. The suggestion is that Llewyn is not going to leave this particular orbit, until he sees you again. But, selfishly or sentimentally, I have to believe there’s some hope to be found in the words sung under the last image we see of Llewyn.

I will write you a letter from time to time
As I’m ramblin’ you can travel with me too.
With my head, my heart, and my hands, my love
I will send what I learn back home to you.
So it’s fare thee well my own true love.
We’ll meet another day, another time.
It ain’t the leavin’
That’s a-grievin’ me
But my true love who’s bound to stay behind.