The Coen Brothers: Learning to Love Losers

Great movies leave you thinking for days if not weeks and months after you’ve seen them. I haven’t been able to get Inside Llewyn Davis (general release Jan 2014) off my mind. I’m particularly fixated on the method of the film’s creators, the Coen brothers, of subverting plot, narrative, characters — in short, subverting the movie-goer’s expectations.

Applying the usual conventions of film-making the brothers lure us into Llewyn’s life, succeeding in evoking a great measure of empathy for him. He is living with a deep wound: the suicide of his buddy and singing partner. He’s apparently homeless, a couch surfer sliding by with a dogged commitment to playing folk songs without new partners, without compromise. He ends up with a runaway cat as his companion.

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Oscar Isaac portrays Llewyn Davis in a breakout performance.

Llewyn can’t catch a break: he needs cash up front for a session gig and signs away future royalties to a goofy novelty song that turns into a hit. When he’s ready to give up on his music career he can’t return to his old one in the merchant marine — his sister had inadvertently tossed Llewyn’s license in the trash (in a box of old belongings he had told her to throw away).

It’s not just bad luck, not just a case of the world against him. Worse, it is entirely indifferent to him. In relationships Llewyn is his own worst enemy. His story has little plot; it’s a meandering journey through sundry mishaps. And some argue there’s little to no character development here; Llewyn is as wretched and none the wiser at the end as at the (nearly identical) beginning.

Yet, we keep pulling for him, all the way to an ambiguous and quizzical end — a medium-defying idiosyncrasy of Coen brothers movies. Their films typically (and this one specifically) seem, on the surface, to leave the viewer with no satisfaction, no “pay off” (I refuse to read it thus, seeing Llewyn’s return to his old gig as a reset, with the appearance of Bob Dylan serving to validate his long suffering).

But the fact that we’re drawn into his life is evidence of a different cinematic goal for the iconoclastic Coens, illustrated best by a sublimely pivotal scene in the film. When Lllewyn auditions for a spot at the Gate of Horn Club in Chicago, the club’s owner, Bud Grossman, sits directly across from Llewyn in a half-lit, empty concert hall where all the chairs but his and Llewyn’s are stacked on the tables. Grossman’s stern, still figure is backlit while an exhausted but ever irascible Llewyn slumps over his guitar in the slanted light.

I think this scene is a parable on what the Coens are driving at: that each of us sitting in the dark cinema, with the light of the projector beaming down from behind, sits in judgment of the characters portrayed on the screen. The question is, will we adhere to the usual expectations of plot and character? Does the film have to “do something” for us?

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Joel & Ethan Coen, second row, 2nd and 3rd from the left.

We live in a moment when super-hero films enjoy immense popularity (I suspect this bears some correlation to wartime). Such movies have their place in evoking timeless myth and virtue. But reality for 99% of us isn’t super-hero stuff. And probably 99% of us know certain ones near and dear who just can’t, or won’t, get their act together — trapped as they may be in stubbornness. If we pay attention we’ll observe that the “American dream” has eluded some while coming to a great many others with a dangling price tag of debt and financial uncertainty.

There is something deeper in our psyches that the Coens are tapping into. If we’re honest, we still love our unheroic, loser friends and relatives. We stick by them through thick and thin, hoping for the best while expecting the worst. And if they can just make it back home — like a bedraggled and beaten Llewyn (and, yes, Ulysses the cat) — we can rejoice like a father waiting for his prodigal.

I think that’s a key to Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen brothers refuse to give us what we expect: a familiar narrative with characters we can easily judge. Rather, they want us to identify with and love a loser. They want us to do something for the character. They want us to give some grace.

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