If there’s one theme that links the Coen brothers’ films together, it’s this: the unrelenting, pointless cruelty of life. Whether it’s John Turturro’s snotty Hollywood scriptwriter receiving his comeuppance in Barton Fink, the circular, petty plots the Dude is ensnared in in The Big Lebowski, or the murderous self-absorption of the main characters in Burn After Reading, the Coens’ ability to capture American culture in all its banal ugliness is unmatched.
If it weren’t for the fact that their movies are so damn funny, they’d have been lynched decades ago.
I was finally able to see Inside Llewyn Davis, their latest flick, last week, and I’m still astounded that these guys are able to find paying work. While not the Coens’ best work, it’s a gripping and hilarious film, but its central theme is completely subversive and a negation of everything that Americans believe in.
Inside Llewyn Davis states that even if you’re smart, dedicated and talented, you can still fail, and in fact you probably will.
This very concept is anathema to Americans, even as the majority of them live it on a daily basis. Our national narrative is based around the Puritan fiction that anyone can succeed if only they “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” If you fail, it’s always your fault; you just weren’t good enough. It ignores the fact that the majority of people throughout human history have been broke nobodies who struggled to survive on a day-to-day basis.
Inside Llewyn Davis revolves around the eponymous protagonist (Oscar Isaac), a folk musician struggling to make a living in early 1960’s Greenwich Village, a part of the same music scene that birthed Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. (Indeed, while the movie is fictional, the Coens based the story in part off of Dave Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street.) Llewyn is no rich kid from the suburbs slumming it; he’s an immensely talented guitarist, singer and lyricist with two records to his name, playing regular gigs at all the famous Manhattan folk venues.
Too bad he just can’t catch a break.
Homeless and perpetually broke, Llewyn spends his days preoccupied with finding a couch to crash for the night and bumming money off his friends, most of whom aren’t much better off. Every attempt he makes to advance himself gets thwarted, every mistake he makes is amplified, leaving him perpetually running the hamster wheel. And as all these little iniquities add up, Llewyn ends up alienating and pushing away his friends, who continue to try and help him even as he repeatedly burns them.
It’s disturbing how accurate the Coens’ depiction of this kind of poverty, the life of the “honest homeless,” is. Having tasted this kind of poverty (albeit briefly), I can speak from personal experience: most of the misery of being at the bottom rung of society comes not from big, life-threatening problems, but tiny ones that combine to form chain reactions of pain and irritation. Screw-ups that wouldn’t even be noticed by wealthier people will blow up in your face, and if you can’t correctly guess what you need to do to get out of the hole, all your progress can be undone in an instant.
The first part of Inside Llewyn Davis shows this perfectly. Llewyn has to scrape together enough money for an abortion after knocking up his on- and off-again paramour Jean (Carey Mulligan). To help him out, Jean’s boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake) hires Llewyn to play on the studio recording of his godawful novelty tune “Please, Mr. Kennedy.” Desperate for cash, Llewyn waives his rights to song royalties in favor of an up-front payment. Traipsing down to the clinic, he’s stunned when the doctor agrees to do the abortion free of charge because the last girl Llewyn sent there opted to keep the baby, and because he didn’t have a phone number or permanent address, the doctor couldn’t give him a refund.
Finally, near the film’s close, a couple of Llewyn’s acquaintances mention how they love “Please Mr. Kennedy,” implying that it will become a hit… which he won’t see a penny of.
That’s life when you’re poor: an eternal Sisyphean grind of low-level tribulations. It’s why whenever I read someone like Dr. Illusion writing about “Fight for 15” and how the poor just need to “get skills,” a part of me wants to punch them in the face. It’s not that simple. “Getting skills” is a distant dream when your salary barely covers the rent, when you have to choose between heat and food, when you’re taking out payday loans so you can pay off payday loans that you got because your $800 car broke down or you caught strep from one of your degenerate customers.
It also assumes that the kinds of people stuck making French fries at Wendy’s are smart and dedicated enough to work out of the position on their own; most aren’t.
No, I don’t think raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is a solution. But neither is lecturing people about the sanctity of hard work from the comfort of your Barcalounger.
Inside Llewyn Davis’ most enduring symbol of this lifestyle is the cute tabby cat that Llewyn totes around wherever he goes. It’s yet another example of the chain reactions that keep people in poverty; at the beginning of the movie, it escapes from the apartment where Llewyn is staying, and lacking a key, he has no choice but to take it with him. The cat then escapes from Jim and Jean’s apartment, where Llewyn crashes for the night, and he spends the better part of the next day trying to find it and failing, much to Jean’s disgust. Given that the guy is homeless and broke, why would he be focused on finding a fucking cat?
Answer: because when everything is spiraling out of control, you’ll latch onto anything that allows you to assert some authority over your life, no matter how minor or irrelevant.
The film is helped along by its first-rate cinematography and acting. In contrast to the expansive landscapes of Roger Deakins, the Coens’ usual cinematographer, Inside Llewyn Davis depicts sixties-era New York City in an array of dismal whites, browns and blacks. You can practically smell the dried urine and Marlboro smoke as Llewyn rides the subway up and down Manhattan. As for the actors, just about everyone does a superb job, with the possible exception of Justin Timberlake (whose role is mercifully small); John Goodman absolutely steals the show later on as an obnoxious jazzman who belittles and mocks Llewyn (“Folk singer with a cat. You queer?”). Adam Driver, of Girls fame, also has a bit role during the “Please, Mr. Kennedy” scene; turns out that the kid can really act when Lena Dunham isn’t pulling on his nuts.
It’s a wonder that making movies like this is still legal.
This is why you owe it to yourself to watch Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s funny, smart, and honest above all else. If film is the most uniquely American art form, the Coen brothers are our Shakespeare and Michelangelo combined.