CINEMA: The Trouble With Llewyn Davis


NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS: There’s the subliminal hint given by Llewyn’s Welsh name, in addition to his blank-slate personality. Maybe the Coens really wanted to make an early-Dylan biopic but couldn’t—it would probably be impossible, at least right now, for a variety of reasons—and front-loaded the picture with Van Ronkiana to blur the traces. And perhaps it is this matter of cross purposes that leaves the movie feeling aimless. The story is no more than a rambling anecdote, Llewyn’s character undergoes no change for all that he experiences and endures, and to the extent that the picture has a structure at all, it is a half-hearted and inexplicable loop—the beginning, in which he is unaccountably cold-cocked by a man in a large hat in an alley outside a club, foretells the end for no very good reason.

Then again, it could be said that historical fiction, like science fiction, is really always about the present. Llewyn Davis is a creature of the here and now, not of 1961. He has none of the communitarian goodwill, the erudite passion, or the optimistic idealism that marked the period. He is a confused, irascible striver who isn’t sure what he is striving for, apparently seeking a career when folk music was about the last place you’d look for one. It is suggested that he has been flopping on friends’ floors for months, when, at the time, people generally only did that when they first hit town, since it wasn’t hard to scratch up the twenty or thirty bucks a month it took to rent a tenement flat fifty years ago.

But if you excise the period details, he makes sense. Whereas in a better time he would spend five or ten years woodshedding and developing a soul, he has no choice but to enter some kind of race right away or die on the vine. He is consistently crass because he feels threatened by people and ideas he can’t dominate—and he can’t dominate very much because he feels threatened. (How else to explain his heckling an Appalachian singer, complete with autoharp and authentically awkward?) Somehow he has made a connection to something that is genuine and profound—the haunting music—but circumstances force him to treat it as a card to play rather than as a path to explore. The implacable dictates of a society in which the value of everything is determined solely by its sale price will sooner or later shuttle him into some low-level desk job. He’ll take his guitar out on weekends for a while, but then the regret will become too strong and he’ll bury it in the back of his closet. And when he sees this movie, he’ll feel a pang—and then he’ll laugh about the vanity of youth. MORE

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Joel Coen told me during a recent conversation that the new movie, on which they collaborated with music producer T Bone Burnett, is the product of “a funny conversation that we’ve been having with T Bone for decades, from project to project, starting with ‘The Big Lebowski.’ ” As such, it’s a revelatory, loving and sometimes absurd look at the life of the musician, with a curated playlist starring actor-singers Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and others. Moving in unison with the action during sets and sessions, the music scores our anti-hero’s circular journey from Greenwich Village to Chicago and back again. The Coens’ precise touch is captured, for example, in a notable absence: a spectral Bob Dylan, then a freshman on the scene whose arrival and impending fame are only suggested. At the beginning, we briefly hear him tuning his guitar onstage, but the Coens are following another touched singer, so the action moves elsewhere. That single shot teases a big American story developing just outside the frame: the tune-up to a whole movement that Dylan would help construct. MORE

 NEW YORKER: In effect, the Gorfeins—together with another character, a doctor whom Davis visits to arrange an abortion (which, of course, was illegal at the time) for a woman he slept with—give the Coens’ movie its “Stardust Memories” slant. The Gorfeins are folk fans—Mitch owns a coveted vintage guitar, which he lets Davis play; Lillian knows the Timlin and Davis repertory by heart—and the doctor tells Davis, “I haven’t seen you at the hoots for a while.” These middle-aged, middle-class liberals are Davis’s core audience, and, regardless of his gratitude for their help, he doesn’t think that they share his fierce and exacting passion for the music.

Davis depends on them directly, and indirectly on many others like them, for whatever career he may have, but he is fundamentally unsympathetic to them and senses that, were push come to shove, they wouldn’t be sympathetic to him or to the deepest and most intimate extremes of his art. For them, folk music is a pleasure, perhaps a social and political marker, not their life’s urgent need. Yet here the Coens subtly plant one of their grand ironies, one that links up with the movie’s central current of metaphorical power: the Gorfeins and the principled abortionist prove to be among the most enduring audience that Davis might ever find, because his younger, hipper audience (as the movie’s whiplash ending shows) will be among the first to desert him. With his panic deepening, Davis hitches a ride to Chicago in the hope of auditioning for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), the owner of the Gate of Horn night club, who could give him a gig that would jump-start his career. That strange interlude has been the subject of controversy—as in a discussion on Twitter with the critics Dana Stevens and Jessica Gross—because it involves the film’s most extreme caricatures, in the personae of the two strangers whose ride he shares: a blowhard jazz musician (played by John Goodman) and his taciturn young driver (Garrett Hedlund—a comic bit of casting, since the actor played the Beat luminary Neal Cassady in “On the Road”).

The symbolic aspect of this sidebar is clear. The jazzman is a hardened cynic with a wound, a habit—and a career; the young actor is a self-deluding purist trapped in humiliating servitude; and for Davis, both options appear unbearable. He wants neither to be a hardened careerist nor a sacrificial idealist—and when he gets outside of New York, outside of the swirling intimacies of his daily life, those two options appear all the more starkly to him as the only choices at hand. Both options are unbearable; his life has become all the more hallucinatory and unreal to him; thus trapped, he needs a miracle to break him out of his bind; and that’s the miracle he hopes Grossman will be able to provide, the deus ex machina that will pull him out of his rut. It doesn’t happen; Grossman doesn’t help, and Davis is, in effect, condemned to return to his life, to New York, to face the same travails all over again. Yet a miracle does occur—not for Davis, so to speak, but to him, exactly as it happened to the world at large at the same moment. MORE

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