It has taken me about a month to realize I had my 2013 top ten all wrong. A month, and 3 viewings, have made it clear that Inside Llewyn Davis is the film of the year, and belongs among the best of the Coen Brothers' body of work.
It took the three viewings - some of their films have hit me immediately, some have taken time to sink in - all of them, I think, have gotten richer with each viewing - this one seemed like a fine film on first viewing, but has only grown since. It might be less pushy than most of their films - it is definitely their straightest film. It's not an adaptation, not a parody, not a remake, not a genre picture int heir usual style. It might be a comedy, but it's less laugh out loud funny than most of their comedies - never over the top int he way they usually go. It's quieter, though just as harsh, and just as impeccably made, and just as stylized, on so many levels - carefully composed, as images, as a story - as the rest of their works. It might be their straightest film, but it does continue their method of picking a time and place, a kind of community, and working out a kind of idealized, stylized version of it - here, Greenwich Village in the 60s, the heyday of the folk scene, right about the time Bob Dylan shows up and claims it in the name of rock and roll. I suspect they got that trick from Robert Altman, who always favored it, and gave himself over to it completely through the last years of his career. Like him, they work down into the world - the settings, communities, the surfaces and underlying values, are all integral to their films - they create abstracted, perfected distilled versions of them, that still reveal the world to you. Greenwich Village in the 60s - which provides the details, the specifics of the story, and the characters - though also like nearly all of their films, this one ends up being an Odyssey. A character on an epic journey, that usually does't actually go anywhere (round in circles in time and place) - in this case, a sailor fallen from grace with the sea.
The story is about Llewyn Davis - folk singer; erstwhile merchant seaman; New York native with a Welsh father and Italian mother (giving him an odd look, offering critics room to speculate on what his real ethnicity might be); a good singer and picker, but a pretty horrid person. Broke, homeless, facing winter without a coat, carting around the detritus of his floundering music career (a crate of remaindered records), and then a cat, belonging to one of his benefactors... He is a schmuck, tramping haplessly around New York, couch to couch (the Gorfeins, academics on the upper west side; Jim and Jean, fellow folk singers in the Village; his sister, out in Queens, or the Bronx [I'm not sure which; though I think they mentioned it]; and anywhere else that will have him, which here includes a fellow failed folkie with a couch, and a car driving to Chicago), surviving, more or less, trying to make a living as a musician. Musically - he's good, drawing on the deep well of material the country has to offer - blues, folk songs, fishing songs - but maybe not good enough to carry the material himself? or maybe too morose, personally, as in his musical selection, to get past the circle of connoisseurs who like his stuff. Whatever it is - he's sinking.
And that is the story, really. The film starts at the end, loops back a week or so, and trails him forward to the end again - a journey that doesn't get him anywhere. The plot revolves around a couple things: raising money to pay for Jean's abortion; trying to return the Gorfein's cat; driving to Chicago and back, partly because the car is a place to sleep, and he's used up his good will in NY, partly in hopes of seeing the great impresario, Bud Grossman. All of these are loops - all of them doubles, too - Jean's not the first woman he's gotten pregnant, a fact that has significance in the story; he rescues the Gorfein's cat, loses it, finds it - only to find it isn't their cat; he goes to Chicago in one car, drives back in another one. It's like that - he's on a loop, and going down, though - you can read it how you would.
He's hard to like, Llewyn Davis - but he's easy to feel for. The Coens have a reputation for mistreating their characters - for creating caricatures, people that seem like cartoons - but it seems to me, the more you watch their films, the more obvious it is how much they care about their people. Seeing a film three times in a month will help - you pick up the details, as you go, and you see, I think, the ways they reveal character, reveal facets of their characters. They are interesting - it's hard to find a lot of people in their films that they seem to genuinely hate. Though there are usually a couple - often John Goodman characters, and that's the case here. His Roland Turner, a ponderous, smug, junkie jazz musician, is about as hateful as you can get (though Goodman is glorious at it - the voice, the mannerisms, the timing - he is a master) - but even Turner....
He's a bit of a sad case, I suppose - but there's more, a moment, a detail, that shifts things, I think. It's hard to notice on one viewing (I certainly didn't quite catch it) - when Llewyn tells him about his partner's suicide. Llewyn's in the driver's seat, Turner in the back, both in the shot - and when Llewyn tells the story, you see Goodman turn, wince, just for a second - a moment where he is human; only to himself - Llewyn doesn't see, and he doesn't give anything away - he gathers himself, and goes right back into his asshole act, cracking that you're supposed to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, not the George Washington bridge... But it's fascinating. It shows, among other things, how much of the asshole act is an act - a defense against he world. Which makes him a lot like Llewyn, to tell the truth - Llewyn puts on the asshole act to push people away, just as much, and just as consciously, as Turner. But little moments like that one, the way Turner turns away, almost in pain, before pulling himself back together, acting the villain again - make the film.
What makes a villain though - well, take Llewyn. He's sour and selfish throughout, but not really awful - but he does two things (maybe three, though the third isn't quite his doing) that are hard to forgive. He abandons the cat on the highway; he heckles a nice old lady at the Gaslight. They are unforgivable because they are really the same thing - he's punching down; he's attacking someone weaker than himself. It's why you feel his abandonment of the cat more than his abandonment of Turner - because Turner is clearly not weaker than Llewyn (except through his own behavior.) It's what makes Turner so insufferable, as well - he is a bully - taking Llewyn as his punching bag, someone, finally, worse off than he is.
I'm not inclined, generally, to make too much of the morality of characters in film - this guy is a good guy, this one bad - but it's hard to deny that the Coens make morality one of the central problems of their films. They are all about how to live - choices - how to treat people; never simplified, they are not morality lectures - but there is a kind of exploration of human behavior, stylized and anatomized, in all their films.
Take Jean. I have seen more than one comment about her that either abused the Coens for the misogyny of her characterization, or criticized her behavior directly, for being a shrew, angry and bitter. Those are pretty much the same complaint, and both rooted in the idea that Jean is a shrew - angry and selfish and unfair, a slut even. But I don't see it; I don't see her character that way, and I don't think the Coens are quite portraying her that way. Now - she is certainly angry - she is mad as hell for most of the film... But how could you say it is irrational or unfair? Why shouldn't she be in a wrath over Llewyn? how is she supposed to react? Mix in, I suppose, her anger at herself, and maybe the sense that she is punching down - taking her regret out on Llewyn; add whatever she feels about dead and gone Mikey - but these things hardly make her anger less understandable. And seeing the film more than once makes clearer the rest of the story - reveals the world she lives in. Everyone wants to fuck her. Everyone who gets a chance does. A lot of people, one imagines, like Papi, fuck her because they can - she needs them, they use her. Maybe it's less clear at first, but it's more obvious seeing it again, she is living in a nastily misogynistic world - how could she not be pissed? She's a smart, talented woman, that everyone takes for granted, except as someone to fuck. How is her reaction anything other than logical? The men around her treat her as a prop - Papi says it all - but Llewyn obviously thinks so too; Jim is nice and competent and oblivious, at the mercy of hard cases like Papi and Llewyn.
And there's another detail I caught the second or third time around - maybe one I'm reading more into than I should, but still - important, I think. Some time between the night Jim and Jean sing with Troy at the Gaslight and the end when Llewyn sings there, Papi fucks her - and then tells Llewyn, if you want to play the gaslight... But there's a glitch there, isn't there? Papi hadn't fucked her the week before, and Jim and Jean have obviously been playing the Gaslight for a while. They make money for Papi - she doesn't have to fuck him for the gig. Which makes me wonder if maybe the reason she fucks him is to get Llewyn a gig. I don't know - maybe I'm over thinking it - but... It makes the scene when he comes back to town, when she tells Llewyn he can play there (even though he played less than a month before), just a bit more devastating. And turns Papi's line - if you want to play the gaslight - a little inside out. I don't think Llewyn catches on - he reacts with a kind of jealousy and general rage - and he's never quite self-aware enough to think or notice that maybe someone somewhere might be doing him a favor without having him whine for it... and if they were, he'd spit int heir face, maybe... but I can't help it. That scene knocks me on my ass.
And so... One more thing, before I go, about the music, and about the performances of the music... There's an interesting pattern to Llewyn's songs: he is constantly shown singing to blanks. The invisible (smoke shrouded) audiences; his senile father; the impassive Bud Grossman; the junkie Turner; or all by himself (in the empty Gate of Horn, say.) The only exceptions are the rather joyous foolishness of the session (which he does for a buck - the one thing he really does do to pay the rent - and that he insists on bad-mouthing, whether he enjoyed it or not), and the dinner party, where his audience's enthusiasm stops him cold. He sings to the void - and when his audience isn't a void, he fights it. He seems lost when people respond to music - he is lost when the audience sings along at the Gaslight on 500 Miles; he loses his shit when Lillian sings along at the dinner. He uses it to attack Turner, engaging him in a parody of the singalong style of folk singer (he's an anti-Pete Seeger, there - no preaching, none of that will to create a community). There's also the odd fact that his songs get more melancholy the more of an audience he has. He can sing a lively number like Green Green Rocky Road to his hostile car mates, sing bits of Cocaine Blues by himself; but when he has an audience that matters, the songs become all the more grim. Faced with a chance to get a career, impress the important Bud Grossman, he picks the most miserable song he can find, suffering, death, loss.... though also, a song that gives away far more of his inner being than he thinks. (Because another thing this film is obsessed with [without quite saying so] is birth, children, fathers, families - things turn on pregnancies, births, fathers and sons.) It's strange, but to the point. He is comfortable singing to the void; he somehow does reveal, something - pouring his soul into it, singing from inside Llewyn Davis - though the act of connecting to another person seems to fill him with despair.