A Coen Brothers film can be great on one viewing, but no Coen Brothers film has been truly watched until it has been seen at least twice.
So far, I have gotten a mixed consensus from the few people I know who have seen "Inside Llewyn Davis." For every time it topped a bestof list or got an A+, it also got a negative review. But Joel and Ethan Coen never really get full acclaim across the board, except in the cases of "Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men."
The legacy of "Inside Llewyn Davis" will take time to sort out, but I figured now was an appropriate time to sort out a few things about the film that you and me, but mostly me, might have been having trouble with. Here is my SPOILER heavy rundown of "Inside Llewyn Davis":
On Llewyn Davis Himself: Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is, as Jean (Carey Mulligan) so lovingly describes him, an asshole. She sure does like to call him that. Llewyn doesn't intentionally try and hurt others around him (mostly), but he doesn't really consider how his actions might hurt others in the future. He is more careless than thoughtless.
On That Note, Llewyn is Kind of an Idiot: Part of the reason I wanted to see "Llewyn Davis" again was because of the technical difficulties during my first screening. One of them cut out a small but pivotal moment, where Llewyn accepts his money for "Please Mr. Kennedy" upfront, and cheats himself out of royalties. He needs the money right away in order to pay for Jean's abortion and his manager simply won't help him here.
Some have said that Llewyn is plagued by bad luck. More accurately, he creates a lot of his own bad luck by being stubborn and uncooperative. Then again, he is also thrown into a lot of situations like this one, where either choice he makes will be a bad one.
Llewyn Might Be an Asshole, but it "Takes Two To Tango": The Coen Brothers don't like to let anybody off easy. Llewyn is surrounded by a lot of jerks, and a lot of well-intentioned hacks. Jean doesn’t blame herself for the fact that she cheated on her husband and might be carrying Llewyn’s baby. No, it’s all Llewyn’s fault. Every time he brings this up, it is as if she didn’t even hear him. One of the defining traits of a typical Coen Brothers’ character is that they seem to be talking to themselves most of the time. For the most part, Llewyn can try and let his music, rather than his actions, speak for him, it would certainly make him look much better.
That Cat: The multiple cats that stroll in and out of “Inside Llewyn Davis” serve many purposes. I would like to say that they serve as a means of motivation for Llewyn. Whether it is the Gorfeins’ cat or the other cat, they are the one thing on this planet Llewyn has control over, and the one thing he really seems bent on helping. Yet, just like with Jean, he gets no thanks whenever he does provide. Even if cats could talk, they probably wouldn’t thank him. That is how cats operate, you see.
Mainly though, a cat is simply perfect comic relief. Mrs. Gorfein’s very weird relation with Ulysses was more pronounced this time (watch what she does with her tongue at one point). “Where is his scrotum, Llewyn?” has made me laugh way too hard on both occasions. The cut to black immediately after it is also perfect.
Comedy Plus Tragedy Equals…: As usual, Joel and Ethan Coen take tragic situations and fill them with comic characters.
Random Questions: How does Llewyn know the Gorfeins? (Likely Answer: Mike was their son) What did Llewyn hit when he was driving on the highway? (Likely Answer: A random tabby cat, and not a goat as my dad thought)
The Chicago Trip: Some might say that the Chicago detour was too long, or even completely unnecessary. In my humble and possibly incorrect opinion, Llewyn needed that trip as much as the audience needed to see it happen.
In any other film, Llewyn would have knocked Bud Grossman’s (F. Murray Abraham) socks off and gotten the gig. Then on the way home, he would have decided to take that awkward first meeting with his son. Instead, Bud doesn’t see any potential and Llewyn passes the exit to Akron. The rejection shows that even when people are pushed this far, there is the chance that they still won’t make it. Some people just won’t get what you do. While this is sad and cynical, there is something very necessary about understanding the life of a failed artist. One can learn more from failure than success.
If these things worked out for the better, this would be a different film. It would be okay, albeit cheesy, and probably directed by Adam Shankman.
Oscar Isaac: I don’t know if he will win, but I am rooting for him to take home the Academy Award for Best Actor.
John Goodman: Somebody with movie power please get an Oscar campaign started for him.
What the Film Lacks in Character Development, it Makes Up for in Back Story: “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the first film of its kind that I would actually watch a prequel to.
The Chicago detour ultimately means less time spent with the characters introduced during the first act. Unlike most writer/directors, the Coen Brothers work best with flimsy characters that border on being one-dimensional. Llewyn is a fairly selfish man, and all that matters about the other characters is how they have somehow factored into Llewyn’s life. Through this, we learn a lot about their past, and that tells us a lot about who they are today. Most of these characters are not meeting for the first time. We are barging in at a very random moment in their lives, so now we have to adapt. We are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. This applies to the audience watching as well as to the characters on screen.
That Moment: When Llewyn looks at a poster for "The Incredible Journey," and you realize that "Homeward Bound" is a remake.
That Ending: “Inside Llewyn Davis” starts and ends in the same place. The same event is shown twice and on both occasions it carries two different meanings.
Basically, Llewyn performs at The Gaslight. He is called outside to meet a “friend.” A shady man proceeds to beat him up. The first time we see it, we know basically nothing about it. It is a confounding event. The second time we see it, there is much more context. Llewyn made fun of the man’s wife. He has once again failed to connect with people. This time, it is very tragic.
Before he gets punched in the face, it almost looks like “Inside Llewyn Davis” is about to end happily, even though we know what is actually going to happen. Llewyn has his most successful performance in the entire whole film. For the first time, he really seems to connect with an audience. After a spectacular rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” Llewyn belts out “Fare Thee Well.” Remember, “Fare Thee Well” was a song he would duet with Mike. Earlier in the film, listening to Mrs. Gorfein chime in with Mike’s verse was painful for Llewyn. He could not even finish the song (also for reasons of selfish pride, but let’s not get into that now). The second time, Llewyn gets through the entire song without a hitch. This is like his moment of redemption. But when you’re a character in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” unlike other films, you will actually have to face the consequences of your actions. Then the punch came.
As Llewyn leaves the bar, unaware of what is about to happen, he happens upon the now familiar sight and voice of Bob Dylan. Dylan is not what Bud Grossman would call a moneymaker, but the fact that Dylan’s insane lyrics and scratchy voice connected so much is almost a miracle.
As Llewyn gets beaten up, you can still hear Dylan singing “Farewell” inside The Gaslight. Yet, Llewyn sits outside in an alley. He is cold, bloody, and defeated. No matter how close he gets to great success, something will bring him down unexpectedly. He is doomed to be a perpetual outsider.
Llewyn Davis strikes me as one of those artists who won’t become famous until long after he is gone. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a sad yet beautiful portrayal of potential both squandered and fully realized. Some people make it, and some people do not. When you don’t make it, sometimes it is your fault, and sometimes you can’t avoid it. There are some people who will get so close to being Bob Dylan, but instead end up lying in an alley with no house, jacket, or furry animal to return to.
Some people thrive on this chaos, and some people, well, they are Llewyn Davis, and they cannot be described in so few words.