Pop Culture

The Same Old Song: On Inside Llewyn Davis

In the Fall of 1998, my friend Becky and I saw the theatrical rerelease of Blood Simple on the Upper West Side. I was sixteen, Becky was fifteen, and for two kids from Long Island, taking the LIRR into the city to see a Film (capital “F”) was about as cool and cosmopolitan as things could get.

A lot has happened since the Fall of 1998. Becky and I saw more Films (capital “F”) together. We worked at the same summer camp. We almost fucked in a pop-up tent. We went to college. We both decided to become gay. We lost touch, and but for Facebook, I wouldn’t know that Becky is now a French teacher and competitive cyclist. Things have changed and so have we, but the Coen brothers, it seems, have not. They have been making more or less the same movie since Blood Simple’s original 1984 release.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I first saw Blood Simple, I was disoriented and delighted by the highbrow/lowbrow, comedy/horror genre mix at play. The slimy bar owner (Dan Hedaya) and his sweaty hitman (M. Emmet Walsh) are familiarly frightening, but they’re also strangely hilarious. The Coens use character actors, music, violence, surrealism, and slapstick to achieve this generic dissonance, and it’s become one of their trademarks. It’s most effective in movies such as Blood Simple, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men, movies whose narratives twist and turn to satisfying conclusions. When the Coens’ narratives go flat (True Grit) or turn predictable (O Brother, Where art Thou?), the screwy side characters and stylistic, tonal flashes become tedious, and the result is a film that’s only a tick or two more bearable than a Wes Anderson movie. (You: But I love Wes Anderson! Me: We’ll never be friends.) Unfortunately for me and $14.50 of my last paycheck, Inside Llewyn Davis, their newest movie, represents the Coens’ dullest and quirkiest outing to date. It’s not just bad; it’s relatively intolerable, especially if the sincerity of folk music makes you squirm. (You: But I love Bob Dylan! Me: We’ll never be friends.)

Inside Llewyn Davis follows a virile thirty-something through the 1960s folk music scene in lower Manhattan, which, believe it or not, is even more boring than it sounds. Here is the entire plot of the film: Llewyn gets beat up, Llewyn gets a woman pregnant, Llewyn goes to Chicago, Llewyn sings songs, Llewyn leaves Chicago, Llewyn curses in front of his nephew, Llewyn insults all of his friends, Llewyn gets beat up. As they are wont to do, the Coens mix in surrealist and absurdist touches (an unneutered tabby cat; Justin Timberlake; an obese heroine addict played by John Goodman), but against a monotonous backdrop of cold, gray, and guitar, these quirks irritate rather than tickle. It’s as if the Coens are trolling their audience, placing the bar so depressingly low that any mildly amusing sight gag or dialogue receives more laughter than it deserves. The folk songs peppered throughout are good, I suppose, but they only add to the film’s cloudy, repetitious feeling. Is there a genre of popular music that’s less exciting and varied?

There are moments when Llewyn Davis teases us with questions of authenticity and music as an industry as opposed to art, but the film fails to explore those issues in any satisfying or provocative way. For example, towards the end of the movie, as Llewyn chats with the owner of a folk music club, he learns that the vast majority of female acts secure their gigs by having sex with the owner. From a cultural critic’s perspective, this exchange could have been the film’s most interesting, critical moment, but instead it ends with Llewyn’s violent ejection from the club. As their career demonstrates, the Coens have never been social commentators. They’re much more comfortable as social observers and storytellers, which works so long as the observations (A Serious Man) and stories (Fargo) are compelling. This time, they are not.

Ultimately, Llewyn Davis is about a hateful, broke prig with puppy dog eyes and a guitar. Nothing more, nothing less. Somehow, someone thought that would make an interesting movie. It doesn’t. Llewyn ends the film in the same way the film begins, literally. There’s no character development, positive or negative, and no climax. There’s just a bunch of folk music and characters who are memorable for their unlikeability, especially the women. Carrie Mulligan, for instance, plays a whiny, exhausting singer who refuses to take responsibility for her actions and their consequences. Similarly, Robin Bartlett plays host/benefactor to Llewyn, and later apologizes – inexplicably – for chastising Llewyn for losing her pet cat. Llewyn’s sister (Jeanine Serralles) exists solely to criticize his life choices. Hopefully this sexism won’t be a new hallmark of the Coens’ oeuvre.

To be fair, Llewyn Davis is an interesting showcase for its lead, Isaac Oscar. Oscar is a Guatemalan-born actor who’s most notable for his role as Carey Mulligan’s thuggish husband in Drive. (Mulligan is also in Llewyn Davis.) His role in Drive differs so greatly from Llewyn that you can’t help but be impressed. He disappears into Llewyn so seamlessly that you almost go along with him on his journey to nowhere. But then, as you’re leaving the theater and your boyfriend says, “THAT SUCKED,” you come to your senses and realize the best thing about the movie was the trailer for Her.

Derek Loh recently graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law. He has an MA in critical studies in film from The University of Southern California and a bachelors in anthropology from Davidson College. He currently lives in New York in the world's smallest one bedroom apartment.