‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is the Most Modern of Old Tragedies

Llewyn Davis is the latest addition to the Coen brothers’ extensive oeuvre of Job-like heroes, singled out by mysterious forces to be fucked with.


Credit: Rotten Tomatoes

And although Llewyn must feel comfortable in this group of sometimes deadbeats, given to the whims of fate and its amusement, Llewyn stands out as the biggest douchebag by far. Can we identify with a character so absorbed with his own asshole (see “self-righteous”)?

With the elliptical structure of the plot of the movie in mind, I will not beat around the bush – yes. In the hands of the Coens we can like this incredible douchebag.

Llewyn is down-on-his-luck. On this particular morning, he wakes up alone in the comfort of the Gorfein’s home on the Upper West Side – an amiable academic couple who enjoy presenting him as their musician-friend. Browsing their record collection, he withdraws one of his own records and is painfully reminded that he was once part of a semi-successful folk-duo, but now partner-less due to the suicide of his former partner.

And so, our hero embarks upon his heroic quest… wait…he has allowed the Gorfein’s cat to slip through the door and lock himself out. AND SO, our two stray cats of heroes – entwined in their fates – embark upon their heroic quest through the biting cold of Greenwich village of 1961 and into the perpetual winter of folk-music.

Llewyn, who is a folk-musician who has become embittered about both the folk and the music, glares angrily and unwaveringly while the critter in his arms stares bug-eyed with wonder at the scenes that pass him by.

He seeks shelter at Jim and Jean’s (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) – a folk-music and romantic –duo (channeling Peter, Paul & Mary). The furious Jean takes him aside and breaks the news of his most recent fuck-up – he has managed to get her pregnant – and goes on a tirade of abuse.

Mulligan gives incredible warmth to the otherwise foul-mouthed Jean – made angelic by Bruno Delbonnel’s photography (“Amelie,” “Across the Universe”). When Llewyn states that there is probably not a single person in the five boroughs that isn’t pissed at him, he is probably right, and for good reason.

As the intrepid cat escapes again, Llewyn rambles from one abrasive scene to another – impudently asking the unsuspecting Jim to borrow money for his girlfriend’s abortion, visiting his working-class sister and having the audacity to tell her he doesn’t simply want to “exist,” mooching off friends and strangers with a formidable conviction of suffering for his purist art (and obviously critical of his fellow folk-musicians that taint it).

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As the embittered Llewyn, in a spur of renewed hope, sets out to Chicago to meet a legendary producer, the real journey begins. A junky jazz musician in the backseat (John Goodman), spewing ridicules at him (“Folk-music? I though said you were a musician”), and his taciturn, beat-poetry-reciting valet take him there in the most recognizable of Coen atmospheres.

And yet, the movie is the most un-Coenesque and “straightest” they have been, but also the best they have been in years.

Llewyn, like so many of us, lives the ethos “Work hard enough and your dreams will come true” – an ethos that we are constantly bombarded with. But it has a way of invoking a sense of self-entitlement, and when things don’t pan out, you feel like the universe is conspiring against you. And although pretty much all Coen’s heroes are the butt-end of a cosmic joke – Llewyn has only himself to blame.

In an unprecedented move in the Coen oeuvre of tragedies, this hero is not hopelessly trying to escape his fate of misfortune, but rather the absurd world that he has created for himself. Furthermore, what if – despite all the hard work – you are very good, but not exceptional? It is the most modern of old tragedies. “If it was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song,” Llewyn says – and so with this tale.

The Coens, always ready to manhandle Americana, will not give you the easy catharsis of a rags-to-riches tale – so perpetuated by Hollywood cinema. It’s a movie about returning to your roots, rediscovering why you love something in the first place, about finding your place in fate and not staring at it from the outside.

“Everything you touch turns into shit. You’re King Midas’ idiot brother,” Jean fires at him. And yet, even when down-and-out and bitter, Llewyn’s lost soul comes pouring out in his soulful music (supervised by the legendary T-Bone Burnett) and manages to strike a chord in us.

It is a heroic quest, yet internal and underplayed with great craftsmanship. There is a resolution, however subtle it may appear. But when you’re inside Llewyn Davis, it’s bombastic.

David Tejer was born in Sweden and raised in a Polish home. He resides in Israel and is a cinematographerRead other articles by David.