Review of Inside Llewyn Davis, Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
There has always been a bleak strain in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. But more often than not the brothers leaven the blackness with quirky humor: their signature is a hilarious misanthropy, a loving satire of our own human stupidity. The humor is essential to make their world bearable: take away the humor, and all you have is black. Which is a pretty good description of Inside Llewyn Davis. This, alongside No Country for Old Men (2007), is the brothers’ bleakest film. But while No Country was a thrilling Oscar-winning noir, Inside Llewyn Davis is a pointless biopic of a frustrated folk singer who gives us no reason to be invested in his life. The movie is superbly well-acted, superlatively frustrating, and not even remotely entertaining.
I love the Coen brothers’ movies. They make interesting films of vast range. They’re best known for Fargo (1996), a crime comedy; The Big Lebowski (1998), a stoner comedy; No Country for Old Men, a noir-western; True Grit (2010), a straight western; and O Brother Where Are Thou? (2000), a musical. In them all, the Coens have never been shy about their nihilistic take on life–they made a joke of it in Lebowski, turned it into a harrowing thriller in No Country, and delivered a semi-autobiographical meditation on it in A Serious Man (2009).
But those films at least had something to make them accessible–humor, thrill, mystery, something to hook the audience. That is what Inside Llewyn Davis lacks. The movie, the story of a failed folk singer in 1961 Manhattan, is so downbeat and life-hating that it is inaccessible. The one flicker of quirk–John Goodman in a performance so brief it amounts to a cameo–feels like it dropped in from another movie. The rest is so lifelike it feels more like a documentary.
Llewyn is a folk singer trying to make it big. He plays in smoky clubs, couch surfs, loses a cat, road-trips to Chicago for a failed audition, tries to join the merchant marine, and gets beat down by an angry patron. He and his friends are dislikable people who do not grow or develop. There is no character arc. Lewyn starts and ends a bitter failure. The Coens may in fact have intended as much: the curious circular structure of the film–starting and ending in the same place–ambiguously suggests that Llewyn is trapped in a repetitive cycle from which he will never escape.
Llewyn is a caricature of the starving artist. He is devoted to the artistic integrity of his music, which is exactly what keeps him from making it big. He is the counterpoint to Barton Fink, the titular character of the Coens’ other movie (1991) about making art for money. Barton sells out to Hollywood (or tries to); Llewyn sticks to his guns. Llewyn’s friends make pap and succeed while he refuses to go more commercial. He auditions for a big-time manager, giving a heartfelt and soulful performance. “I don’t see much money in this,” the manager drolly replies. “Neither do I,” I muttered under my breath. The Coens, whose movies rarely make much money, have rarely been more careless of the box office.
There is something ironic–or just hypocritical–in the Coens making a movie about sacrificing success for the sake of artistic integrity. With 13 Oscar nominations, and four wins, they aren’t exactly failures. Their last film, True Grit, was the most commercially successful movie they’ve ever made; by itself, it made something like a quarter of all the money earned by all their films, combined. Perhaps Inside Llewyn Davis is their apology for True Grit, a mea culpa for momentarily going mainstream.
What is the point of artistic integrity if you are the only person to appreciate your own art? Art doesn’t exist for itself, nor for the artist’s self-satisfaction. Art should be a reflection of something true, noble, or beautiful, and for that reason should also be able to speak to and edify others. Artistic integrity isn’t a virtue if you are guarding the integrity of bad art. The Coens are coddling their sense of artistic sacrosanctity and flaunting it in the faces of their fans.
Why make a movie about a failed life? The Coens are suggesting, I think, that this is what life is really like. Sometime people do not grow. Sometimes there is no victory, no redemption, no catharsis, and no great realization. Sometimes stuff just happens, and then you die (a good description of The Big Lebowski). The Coens’ motto may as well be Ecclesiastes 1:2, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” But if that is true, there is also no story, no plot, and no character. Inside Llewyn Davis is pointless. There is no point to the film’s storyline, and there is no point to the movie having been made.
To be clear, this isn’t a boring movie. The Coens are incapable of making a dull or sloppy film. If you like to watch good actors at their best, or a skilled cinematographer capture moods and moments artistically, you’ll enjoy this movie at some level. There is a little (but only a little) of the Coens’ trademark wit (“Why throw yourself off the George Washington bridge? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally. Throw yourself off the George Washington Bridge…Who does that?”). That’s enough for most critics, who have given the movie a 95 percent rating on RottenTomatoes. But I left the theater feeling depressed and insulted. Llewyn begins and ends the film singing of his wish to be hanged. Watching the movie, I know how he felt.