Good filmmaking has much in common with good poetry. Filmmakers and poets both employ language and techniques, specific to their art, that allow them to give their works multiple layers of meaning within tightly condensed packages. Poets use metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, tone, symbol, euphony, and rhetorical structure to streamline their communication with their audiences; filmmakers use lighting, music, costumes, setting, and those same metaphors, rhythms, and symbols to create a similar effect.
This is especially true of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, who have been creating startlingly brilliant films since Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987). Those two freshman films — one a violent crime thriller and the other a quirky, lighthearted romp (OK, its main characters are criminals too, but they have such good hearts!) — demonstrated early on the breadth of their artistic palettes. While many filmmakers have such recognizable styles that they eventually become adjectives (Hitchockian, Spielbergian, Bergmanesque, etc.), others do something new and inventive each time. The Coens are like that. While they tend to repeat some of the same artistic tools — they have favorite actors, cinematographers, and musicians — each film offers something predictable only in its unpredictability.
Music is one of their most effective artistic tools, so it should not be surprising — and yet it is — that the Coens would make a film that is simply a week in the life of a folk singer in the 1961 Greenwich Village music scene. As the film opens, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is finishing a set in a small, dark cabaret. When the theater manager tells him that a friend in a suit is waiting for him outside, he goes out back and is promptly punched in the face. We don’t know why, and we don’t find out why until much later in the film. Nevertheless, this event seems to be the beginning of a long week of unhappy events in the life of a struggling artist.
Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival.
Llewyn has no money, no gigs, and no real hope of future gigs. He’s trying to make it as a solo artist after beginning his career as half of a duo, and so far it isn’t working. He sleeps on the couches of friends and bums cigarettes and sandwiches whenever he can. He’s a likeable guy, though down on his luck, and he has a gorgeous, haunting voice. The best part of this film is simply listening to the music. As Llewyn says after finishing a song, “If it isn’t new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” The soundtrack might be based in the ’60s, but the music feels as contemporary as yesterday, with emotion that is deep and painful.
Llweyn makes a lot of unwise decisions that lead to the unfortunate circumstances he encounters, and that’s an important but subtle message in this film. Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival. When it’s winter in New York and you have no home, no overcoat, no food, and no cigarettes, you make decisions based on short-term needs rather than long-term consequences. For example, you might take the quick hundred bucks for playing a recording session rather than holding out for the lucrative royalties that are due to you as a represented musician, because you need the money right now. (By the way, that studio session in which Llewyn, who doesn’t read music, learns his part by ear and then performs it for the recording is simply magical.)
This aspect of the film reminds me of the interchange between Siddhartha and the merchant Kamaswami in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in a scene that occurs shortly after Siddhartha leaves the ascetic life of the monks to join the materialistic world of the city:
"Everyone gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teachings, the farmer rice, the fisher fish," [Siddhartha begins.]
"Yes indeed. And what is it now that you've got to give? What is it that you've learned, what are you able to do?" [Kamaswami responds.]
"I can think. I can wait. I can fast."
"I believe, that's everything!"
"And what's the use of that? For example, the fasting — what is it good for?"
"It is very good, sir. When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do. When, for example, Siddhartha hadn't learned to fast, he would have to accept any kind of service before this day is up, whether it may be with you or wherever, because hunger would force him to do so. But like this, Siddhartha can wait calmly, he knows no impatience, he knows no emergency, for a long time he can allow hunger to besiege him and can laugh about it. This, sir, is what fasting is good for."
But Llewyn doesn’t know how to fast, or how to wait, and so he takes the cash in hand now instead of waiting for the more valuable royalties that could be worth much more later. He is like Esau, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage when he was famished from hunting in the forest.
In this film John Goodman portrays the most despicable character of his career, even worse than his shyster Klansman in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (another Coen Brothers film with a sublime musical score and ethereal lighting and cinematography). His character isn’t violent, but he’s vile. Goodman can and will do anything, and good directors know it. He’s having quite a career as a character actor.
Like good poetry, and good art, this is a film to be savored, pondered, and re-viewed in order to understand the richness of its meaning. Several recurring images — a cat, or cats, that show up throughout the film, for example, and the way Llewyn adjusts his coat just before he sings — create a disconcerting yet satisfying sense of ambiguity that adds to the layers of meaning. You’ll want to go with a friend, just to talk about the film afterward. Inside Llewyn Davis is about an aspiring ’60s folk singer, but it’s about so much more. It’s about choice and accountability, about survival in a harsh environment, about the conflict between commercialism and individuality. It’s about the artist in us all, and the price most of us aren’t willing to pay for greatness. It’s one of my favorite films in a season of good films.
A note about recognition: snubbing Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the stupidest mistakes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made in a long time. Philomena?? Instead of this?? I don’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they just didn’t want to put in the effort it takes to peel back the layers of genuine art.