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By Adam Nayman
For a pair of authentically brand-name filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen have a funny thing for pseudonyms and noms de plume. It’s common knowledge that they’ve edited all of their productions (and been nominated for multiple Oscars) under the assumed identity of “Roderick Jaynes,” and the films themselves are filled with examples of similar masquerades. In Barton Fink (1991), it’s revealed that the Faulknerian novelist cum Hollywood hack played by John Mahoney has been putting his name on manuscripts written by his secretary; Tara Reid’s underage trophy wife in The Big Lebowski (1998) redubbed herself Bunny La Jolla when she arrived in Los Angeles, but is originally one “Fawn Knutsen” of the Moorehead, Minnesota, Knutsens; Billy Bob Thornton’s cowboy-hatted cuckold in Intolerable Cruelty (2003) is introduced as “Howard D. Doyle,” but is in fact a nameless daytime soap opera actor.
Early on in Inside Llewyn Davis, there is an insert shot of a letter addressed to one Arthur Milgrum, a country-and-western guitar-slinger who has already been introduced to the film’s eponymous protagonist as “Al Cody.” “I’m working on getting it changed legally,” says Arthur/Al (Adam Driver) to Llewyn (Oscar Isaac). Considering that the latter’s most defining characteristic seems to be an inability to acknowledge the feelings of the people around him, it’s interesting that he receives this information with a sympathetic glance, perhaps because he doesn’t really look like a “Llewyn Davis” himself: dark-eyed and slightly dusky beneath tousled black hair, he seems about as Welsh as Barton Fink. (“My mother was Italian,” he says exasperatedly at one point, when his patrimony is being parsed by a colleague.)
Reviewing Inside Llewyn Davis for the Jewish publication Tablet, J. Hoberman assures us that “Llewyn is of indeterminate ethnicity but definitely gentile—if only because he is far too appealing to be a Jew in Coenville.” Perhaps the only thing as consistent as the brothers’ 30-year run of immaculate black comedies is Hoberman’s treatment of them as his own personal black sheep boys. In review after review, Hoberman has met what he perceives as the pair’s contempt for their characters with plenty of his own. And he isn’t afraid to get personal, either. “Although a robust disdain for their creatures is a given, it is when the Coens deploy explicitly Jewish characters that their glee turns hostile,” Hoberman insists elsewhere in the review, which in its roving, effortless command of film, musical, literary, and cultural history establishes the author as every bit his quarry’s equal. Where many writers end up cowed by the Coens’ broad (if not deep) frame of reference, Hoberman doesn’t feel obliged to give them an inch. And, as a result, he typically sells them short: well shy of the mark in Barton Fink, which, far from betraying “any hint that its minstrel show battle royale was occurring at the acme of worldwide anti-Semitism,” features two explicitly anti-Semitic detectives with Italian and German surnames, and a freaky sequence where a Germanic wrestler screams “I vill destroy you!” behind a clapboard bearing the date of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Hoberman’s closer to the target with Llewyn Davis, which he calls the Coens’ “warmest” film in nearly two decades (notwithstanding that the 2010 True Grit summoned up precisely the sort of big, crowd-pleasing emotions that both the Coens and their ostensible onscreen surrogates—and here again I am referring to Barton Fink—are supposedly allergic to). He’s also right that Isaac’s wonderful, hopefully star-making performance inspires sympathy, but I’m not sure that he’s “far too appealing to be a Jew in Coenville.” Considering the film’s climactic cameo from that nice young Zimmerman boy—who quite famously changed his name to something more evocative of that old Anglo-Saxon charm—it might be wiser to end where Hoberman begins, and conclude that the question of Llewyn’s ethnicity (and religious affiliation) is “indeterminate.” But whether or not Llewyn is, like his new pal Al Cody, a Jew who’s taken on a more accessible stage name or an incongruously Jewish-seeming gentile, he is, both as written and acted, more than the simple schlemiel that Hoberman would reduce him to: not an existential victim, but a crumpled hero within a musical tradition that has always nobly valourized failure.
As the film opens, Llewyn is firmly ensconced within a Greenwich Village coffee-house community that has its own sort of built-in, quasi-professional hierarchy. We quickly intuit that Llewyn has a reputation as a talented asshole who gets himself in trouble—in fact, gets his ass righteously kicked—for disrespecting his fellow performers. Stumbling uninvited into the apartment of fellow folkie (and former fuck buddy) Jean (Carey Mulligan) to discover that his hoped-for crash pad is being occupied for the weekend by Troy (Stark Sands), a crew-cut, unshakeably polite military man on weekend furlough, he sizes the welcome houseguest up for about two seconds before concluding that he’s an idiot. We might conclude this too, if not for the fact that a few scenes later, we watch along with Llewyn as Troy performs a gorgeous rendition of Tom Paxton’s perennial “The Last Thing on My Mind” at the Gaslight Café. “Does he have any higher functions?” queries Llewyn to Jim (Justin Timberlake), Jean’s blithely cheerful husband and singing partner, who smiles off the dig and then joins Troy and Jean onstage for an equally lovely run-through of “Five Hundred Miles,” a plaintive lament sung from the point of view of a wayward traveller far from home. Of all the troubled thoughts playing across Llewyn’s face during the performance—and he has reason to be troubled, as Jean has recently informed him that she might be carrying his baby—the understanding that this song of hapless wandering offers a portent of his immediate future is not one of them.
If Llewyn doesn’t have any inkling of what’s about to happen, it’s because the film so skilfully disguises its narrative design. “The film doesn’t really have a plot…that’s why we threw a cat in,” offered Joel at Cannes, unhelpfully (as is typical). But the feline in question, a ginger-tom who goes pointedly nameless until almost the end of the film—although fans of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) can probably guess it—is not a last-second throw-in but a carefully selected catalyst for what mutates from a portrait of a peculiarly claustrophobic urban subculture to a wide-open road movie. The Coens do love their quest narratives, from Raising Arizona (1987) to O Brother to No Country for Old Men (2007), and they’ve designed Inside Llewyn Davis as yet another wild-goose chase, in two halves: Part One a send-up of a folksy social scene where paying gigs are scarce and protest songs are being drowned out by novelty recordings like Jim’s absurd, Space Race-referencing “Please, Mr. Kennedy” (the recording of which is the film’s comic highlight); Part Two an incredible journey in the company of a heroin-addicted New Orleans jazzman (John Goodman) and his weirdly posturing blonde manservant (Garrett Hedlund) as Llewyn, having almost methodically alienated all of his allies in New York, hitches a ride to Chicago to seek out an influential musical impresario. That the promoter is named “Bud Grossman” is a joke for Dylanophiles; that his club is called The Gate of Horn is a joke for Odyssey scholars; that he’s a Jew played by an Arab (F. Murray Abraham) is a joke for the Coens, and one that ties into the underlying theme of ethnic masquerade.
On that note again, Hoberman is not wrong to say that Llewyn’s circle of friends and associates is “amply stocked with colorful grotesques, not a few of them Jewish,” but I suppose grotesqueness is in the eye of the beholder. Exhibit A: The Gorfeins, an older married pair of academics depicted, teasingly but affectionately, as endlessly generous and indulgent Upper West Siders who offer Llewyn food, shelter, and support in spite of his being a sorry mess. (Pointedly, it’s these mensches’ cat that Llewyn misplaces en route to shamefacedly running himself out of town.) If there’s a real gargoyle here, it’s Mulligan’s aggro Anglo Jean, whose hostility, to paraphrase Hoberman, turns gleeful when she’s berating Llewyn for his myriad fuck-ups—and also when she informs him, with what sounds pretty much like the mother lode of anti-Semitic contempt, “I don’t hang out with the Gorfeins.” In a movie of almost perfectly harmonious ensemble casting (including a nicely guileless Timberlake, trading in Suit & Tie for mustard knitwear), Mulligan sounds a rare bum note, but then her character isn’t actually very important: there’s nothing that Jean says about Llewyn’s inveterate selfishness that we can’t perceive for ourselves. Her real function within the Coens’ deceptively shaggy and yet deeply intricate screenplay is to serve as a shade of another woman, an unseen figure named Diane whom Llewyn had also gotten pregnant two years earlier. In a scene that’s made even more grimly funny by the way it’s underplayed, Llewyn learns from the doctor he’s lined up for Jean’s abortion that Diane didn’t, in fact, terminate her pregnancy, and is now living in her hometown of Akron with her baby boy.
Considering the centrality of paternal anxiety in the Coens’ oeuvre—in Raising Arizona and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) particularly, not to mention Ulysses Everett McGill’s (George Clooney) repeated, flustered assertion in O Brother that he’s the “goddamn paterfamilias”—this is not just another throwaway set-up in the ongoing punchline that is Llewyn’s life, but the fulcrum of what turns out to be a weighty film indeed. Three scenes in Llewyn Davis’ home stretch confirm these daddy issues: two quite bluntly, and one with a poeticism that goes beyond anything I’ve ever seen in the Coens’ work. The first, Llewyn’s much-anticipated solo session for Grossman, is broadly telegraphed as an anticlimax, although the details of the older man’s disapproval (he suggests that Llewyn cut his beard down to a goatee) are ripe for deconstruction. Later on, when Llewyn has decided to ship out with the Merchant Marine (leading to a gag wherein those crypto-conservative Coens skewer the tradition of “union dues”), he sings a song to his invalid, ex-seaman father, who signals his disapproval in a way even more painful than Grossman: he soils himself.
These two musical performances, which call on Isaac as Llewyn to sing his heart out in close-up for two-and-a-half minutes at a time, are as much referendums on the actor’s talent as the character’s, and it’s a testament to the complexity of the Coens’ design that the actor succeeds astonishingly well while simultaneously implying that the character may not be as great as he thinks he is. The combination of acting, directing, and musical curation in these sequences is sublime. The barely restrained anguish with which Llewyn sings “The Death of Queen Jane” for Grossman seems to be about his professional desperation, until we clue into lyrics referencing a troubled birth and the possible death of an heir (“If I lose the flower of England, I shall lose the branch too”). Similarly, “The Shoals of Herring,” which Llewyn specifically chooses for his father, is a young man’s reminiscence of a fishing expedition, which evokes the elder Davis’ days on the sea (and maybe his own Welsh heritage).
It’s a passage in between, however, that provides the movie with its keynote moment, and it all comes back to that darn cat. Late in the film, when Llewyn is driving back to New York after his dismal experience with Grossman, he spies an exit ramp to Akron, which is visible in the distance as a cluster of blinking, faraway lights. Instead of turning off to search out his son, he drives on—and swerves to avoid hitting the cat, whom he’d abandoned at the side of the road on the first leg of the journey. The symbolism here isn’t subtle, but the presentation is overwhelming: a ghostly blur against a black background; a smear of blood on the car’s bumper; a nearly indiscernible little figure limping off the highway and into the woods. In a film where Llewyn’s responses to his (mostly self-inflicted) tribulations tend towards either defensiveness or sarcasm, this late-night encounter with the wounded symbol of his own fecklessness leaves him speechless. And, amidst a series of musical interludes all tied to the idea of goodbyes—titles include “Fare Thee Well” and “Farewell”—it’s a potent image of loss and regret.
Inside Llewyn Davis does not go on to top this sequence, but it doesn’t have to, since its mournful implications hang over everything that comes afterwards, including Llewyn’s final gig at the Gaslight, which brings the movie full circle. At the beginning of the film, Llewyn’s performance of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” may have seemed a little disingenuously self-pitying, an appropriation of world-weariness by a canny careerist; by the end, his melancholy seems earned. Ironists to the core, the Coens have imagined a character whose ultimate defeat feels like a kind of victory, and vice versa; this man of constant sorrow is finally bona fide, for all the good it does him.
Our last glimpse of Llewyn Davis is of a defiant man defending his turf—a hard-won niche that’s also a trap. Complaints that artists as successful as the Coens have no business imagining the experiences of those stuck on the margins strike me as more perverse than anything in their films. That Llewyn’s reward for becoming the authentically battered but unbowed hero of his own rambling, contemporary folk ballad is to be instantly forgotten as the opening act for someone with a greater capacity for self-invention may be a joke. But you know, I forgot to laugh.