A man is in the gutter. Is this the beginning, the end, or the beginning of the end of his story? It’s hard to tell, because this is a Coen brothers movie, and the Coens aren’t apt to provide their characters with pleasant journeys or their audiences with many answers.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of a Greenwich Village folk singer, the titular Llewyn, in the early 1960s who just can’t seem to catch a break. Some of his troubles are his fault – he’s not a particularly amiable guy – some of them are the fault of others – his “friends” aren’t very nice either – and some of them have to be accredited to the whims of the universe. The gauntlet of angst Llewyn endures is great even by Coen standards, and the mercy the film affords him is minute. Often when I see musicians on film, I want to be them. I don’t even want to be in the same room as Llewyn lest I get caught in his existential wake.
The movie is as darkly funny as any of the Coens’ more melancholy films. The brothers walk the Ecclesiastical line of “Everything is meaningless! Have a laugh!” better than just about anyone, and a few of their films tend to lean one way or the other. True Grit, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and Raising Arizona approach something resembling optimism. A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, Barton Fink, and Blood Simple fall more on the side of meaninglessness. The others are a little harder to pin down. Inside Llewyn Davis belongs in the meaningless category, I think, and everything I just wrote in this paragraph is up for debate.
While watching this movie and since I’ve tried to see it as something darkly and cleverly positive. I’ve tried to imagine a way in which all Llewyn’s trials are for his benefit. I think that’s the part of me that has heard for my whole life that God wills the good and the bad and that the bad is ultimately for our good. “It was the Lord’s will,” the well meaning comforter says, “and who knows what God has planned. You needed to go through that, Llewyn, to become the kind of person God wants you to be.”
But that’s just not true. God doesn’t will evil and misfortune. God doesn’t send men in cowboy hats to break our ribs in back alleys. God doesn’t tell us that what we do is worthless because there isn’t any money in it. God doesn’t make our loved ones leap off bridges or descend them into dementia. God allows those things. God weeps over those things. Then, God takes those things and works them for our good. It is an omnipotent God who can allow people the free will to do terrible things to themselves and to each other and then redeem that evil by twisting it into good.
But where is God in Inside Llewyn Davis? Llewyn’s world seems devoid of God or any other redemptive power. Just when you think there might be a little redemption for our troubadour, things spiral a little further down. I’m not sure there is any grace for Llewyn in the course of the narrative. I can imagine it in the future, but it’s not in the film. Maybe.
If there is any recompense granted to Llewyn for his troubles, it’s in his music. In his singing, though he is not praised for it, he is able to voice his angst. He is able to touch something inside himself that remains standing even when everything else is falling around him. He is able to touch us, his audience whom he’ll never really know, with his grief and with his persistence in the face of his grief. There’s proof of a little grace in that, I think, and proof of a little grace in us if we’re willing to listen to Llewyn sing.
In closing, Roger Deakins, who usually works with the Coens, didn’t work on Inside Llewyn Davis. I missed his cinematography while I was watching this movie. Deakins’ myth-making compositions complement the Coens’ folksy sensibility and makes the mundane seem monumental. The more I’ve thought about it though, the more I appreciate the intimacy and immediacy cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel achieves. Delbonnel puts us right up with Davis on the stage, so that it’s as if there’s no one else but him in the room. We’re forced to empathize with him in a way that is fitting of the aims of folk music. Deakins might have allowed us to stand in awe of or aghast at Llewyn. Delbonnel takes us inside him.