I don’t say he’s a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.- Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
I tend to fetishize and romanticize artistic people. It’s probably because I’ve always classified myself in a similar way. Artistic people, I’ve always assumed, had more integrity and would not “sell out” to commercialism and making a buck. They are larger-than-life characters in my way of thinking, the Jack Kerouacs of the world hitchhiking across the U.S. with no money while writing a great novel. It didn’t matter that their work probably wouldn’t be appreciated in their lifetime. These people lived for something bigger. It is a particular strain of the rugged individualistic American myth, the loner who pulls up his bootstraps and lives for something he actually believes in. In a world where people seem to believe in nothing, this mindset has always seemed attractive to me.
The Coen Brothers’s new movie “Inside Llewyn Davis” seeks to destroy this creative myth in all its glory. Its main character, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac, just perfect in the title role), is a struggling folk singer in 1960s New York City. He is homeless. He couch surfs at any place that will take him. His old folk partner, Mike, no longer plays with Llewyn for reasons that are initially unclear. He alienates everyone around him whether its a married folk couple (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) or his hard-nosed, practical sister (Jeanine Serralles). And bad luck seems to follow him wherever he goes.
But Llewyn is true to his art. He makes snide comments to his friend Jim when they record a track that is purely for commercial value. Llewyn is talented surely with a soulful voice and Sephardic good looks. But he isn’t transcendent. Over and over the world seems to tell him that there is no future for Llewyn in music. He just isn’t a lead man and never will be. The movie references Homer’s Odyssey on one occasion, and it is an apt comparison to Llewyn’s story. But unlike Odysseus who journeys many years to return home to his wife, Penelope, Llewyn’s journey is marked by suffering, disappointment and failure as he travels from to New York to Chicago and back. As much as he wants to be a great folk singer, the world is telling him he can’t be, no matter how he tries.
In that way, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is very much a Coen Brothers movie. The brothers have always detailed the everyday existences not of heroes but the losers of the world. Although never overtly political, the Coen Brothers have always been great populists in that way. Some may be fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous but the Coen Brothers seem to fascinated by the alienated and aimless. In this way “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a tribute to the suffering of people who have artistic hopes and aspirations but never make it in the way they imagined. (I’ve known many writers and musicians who would relate to this feeling) It’s a sort of macabre love poem to those who have tried and failed, which it seems to me is the mass of humanity. In that way “Inside Llewyn Davis” is universal.
But in other ways, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is nothing like a Coen Brothers movie. Usually their movies are tightly plotted, beautiful machinations of plot-driven narratives. But “Inside Llewyn Davis” is aimless in a way that Coen Brother movies are not. In fact it is one of the more aimless mainstream movie I’ve seen in recent years. Ethan Coen himself said, ““It became clear early on that it [had no plot]. The audience isn’t hanging on what’s going to happen next because not much is happening.”
But this aimlessness gives the movie a poetic beauty that is not only rare in Coen Brother movies but most mainstream movies. Life in the modern world is fragmented and is often hard to make sense of. Traditional narratives try to give shape to this fragmentation by providing the audience with a a beginning, middle and end. But the lives of everyday people rarely fit into these neat categories. Life is an endless serious of events, some good, some bad. It can be dull and painful but also beautiful and poetic.
The fragmented structure of “Inside Llewyn Davis” mirrors this fact, and it tells me that the filmmaking of the Coen Brothers has matured into a place I thought not possible for them. The Coens seem to understand that as we all get older, we must all accept that the narratives we’ve had for our lives are just the lies we tell ourselves to survive. Nothing fits in the neat packages we hoped for in our youth. “Inside Llewyn Davis” certainly doesn’t fit into any neat category as film. And because of that, it might just be the best film the Coen Brothers have ever made.