The twenty best films of the decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
And It Won’t Be Long
Eric Hynes on Inside Llewyn Davis
“You probably heard that one before. It was never new and it never gets old. It’s a folk song.”
These are the first non-sung lines in Inside Llewyn Davis, and as with most lines in a Coen Brothers movie, they are freighted with meaning, vibrating into and destabilizing what came before and comes after. Loosely inspired by an actual artist, named after a fictional album, made by two artists occupationally interested in honoring and redefining forms and genres, Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie that follows characters who make and perform folk songs, and which itself effectively becomes a feature-length folk song. Folk is a genre and ethos in which tunes are revisited and repurposed, stories are recalled and recast, chords are rehearsed and rearranged, where the past is recruited to define or erase or comment upon or malign or armor the present. Watching the film just six years after its late 2013 release already feels like putting on a favorite record that time has sharpened and warped, as time and folk records are designed to do. It was never new and it never gets old.
True to form, after ambling uptown and downtown, to Chicago and back to New York, the film will return us to those opening words in its final scene, though when we get there it’s not at first clear if it’s metaphorically or literally a moment we’ve experienced before. Life begets art forms, which beget life; emotion begets performances, which beget emotion; behavior begets character, which begets behavior; life begets death, which begets life—it’s all looping, regenerative. Itinerant Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) moves along somewhere, settles down somewhere else, wakes up with himself, and moves along again. His days may be a Sisyphean struggle, repetitive rather than progressive, but the cycles do build upon and recall the last, and give meaning to the next. You probably heard that one before.
“G…G…C…G…G…E…,” John Goodman’s smack-addict A-hole jazzbo Roland Turner bellows while Llewyn drives him to Chicago during the film’s nearly self-contained road trip episode, mocking the stunted sameness of folk chord progression. Turner fails, of course, to factor in the crucial variances that occur beyond and between the chords—Llewyn knows this, but the blow still lands. Moments later Llewyn reveals that he lost his former partner, Mike, to suicide. Why does he open up to Turner, of all people? It’s like making a confession to a demon, jumping a cannonball into concrete. “Well shit, I don’t blame him. I couldn’t take it either having to play ‘Jimmy Crack Corn’ every night.” His partner Mike got off the carousel. Llewyn is still on it. And the music he hears, and plays, whenever Mike comes to mind, is damn-near Turner’s mocking “G…G…C…G…G…E…”
We first hear the chords of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” as a spirited duet recording by Llewyn and Mike—performed by Isaac and Marcus Mumford—which Llewyn puts on while at the upper west side apartment of the kindly, well-off, benefactor-like Gorfeins, and which then continues over the musician’s passage downtown via subway. The song is revived by Llewyn for the film’s goosebump-provoking finale, with each L in “well” progressively sustained until breath has fully left his lungs. “Life ain’t worth living without the one you love” is a kicker in the recorded duet version; it’s missing in the live reprise, perhaps because the sentiment is painfully apparent. Sounds repeat with variation, days repeat with variation, breaths repeat with different emphases, the movie repeats and different elements emerge.
It’s a film made in 2013 that’s set in 1961, featuring people in their twenties and thirties singing songs written generations before they were born, that takes place over a week that nevertheless feels, as Llewyn himself says at one point, like months. It’s the dawn of the space age, and yet we open in a place anachronistically, absurdly called The Gaslight Café, the inside of which looks like a catacomb. Note the first words sung in the film, in the shadowy Greenwich Village cafe, before we’ve met anyone or understood anything. “Hang me, oh hang me. I’ll be dead and gone. Wouldn’t mind the hanging, but the laying in the grave so long,” incanted while young people in turtlenecks nod their heads in assent. Their weariness is inherited from parents who might have fought in the war and lived through the Depression, ancestors who immigrated, worked, and hustled, their premature gravity perhaps felt, perhaps performed, perhaps just projected by the subjective emotional state of the man on stage, whose point of view we’re tacitly adopting for the entirety of the film. The songs get passed down, unearthed, reformed. We learn that Llewyn recorded the fisherman’s song “The Shoals of Herring” for his Merchant Marine father when he was a teenager—yet it’s a song that didn’t historically exist in this form until 1960, when it was credited to English singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, who of course was basing it off of earlier variants on a similar title, theme, and melody. Many of the songs in the film had been recorded by Dave Van Ronk, like Llewyn a fixture of the Village folk scene, yet there’s little affinity between their stories, little biographical resonance. Just the forms, the spaces, the songs. A voice arises from the catacomb, and it’s hard to tell if it’s among the living or the dead.
Llewyn is both older and younger than he seemed at first. He’s labored at sea like his father and has a sister who’s mother to a preteen son. He also lives so far outside practical considerations that he depends on the accommodations of wary friends and hesitant strangers to house him from night to night, still relying on their tolerance for romantic notions of the unsullied troubadour. The Coens set their story during the era of On the Road, but it has none of the heady energy of Kerouac’s novel, none of the recasting of America through the rebellious bluster of self-authoring men. Every scene is a wave that crashes against Llewyn, sending him back however many steps he had taken. Every dollar made is spent immediately to cover a debt. And each of those debts turns out to be inconsequential, illusory. Rent, cups of coffee, abortions, captain’s licenses, tanks of gas, royalties, a set at the Gaslight—money comes in and goes back out, changing nothing in the process.
We don’t see Llewyn experiencing desire or satisfaction, he doesn’t enjoy food or drugs or sex (though he does seem to be paying a price for previous indulgences), he never settles into a place of his own, doesn’t even seem to experience sleep except as a disorienting interlude. And when he takes that drive to Chicago, accompanied, incredibly, by Garrett Hedlund, who played Kerouac’s buddy Neal Cassidy in the previous year’s On the Road adaptation, it’s a greyscale journey through a drab, lifeless landscape, punctuated by actual insult and injury, culminating not in the apex of creativity but its actual nadir, the reduction of art to its monetary value. Auditioning for music executive Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) in another cavernous, funereal theater, Llewyn doesn’t blow it, in fact he nails a solo incantation of “The Death of Queen Jane.” And yet, “I don’t see a lot of money here,” is Grossman’s reply. For my money, it’s the decade’s most devastating line of dialogue, rationally true and yet condemnatory of a world defined by such rationality. Llewyn sinks into his chair, but there really wasn’t much further to sink. “So that’s it?” he says, knowing it is, regardless of what they say to each other next. And still 30 minutes remain; several verses have yet to be sung. It’s a folk song.
You know Llewyn won’t come out on top. You know he’s caught in a loop. Still you never stop hoping it will be different. That he will stop being his worst enemy; that he will cease pushing away people who want to help him. That some people, namely the Gorfeins, look past his distemper to keep accepting him into their homes exposes their own loop, which is a loop of forgiveness, of empathy. For not every loop is pathetic. And looping is still living. Loops and their variants are inherent to performance, to practice, where actions and skills are refined, where progress is defined between the lines. Do we really need to move forward to live fully? Does Llewyn need to either grow beyond the Gaslight and make a good living or give up? Does he need to start a family and move to the suburbs; does he need a backup plan? (The scenes where this theme is explored, via Carey Mulligan’s Jean, are the most strained in the film, largely because of how thinly her part is written and performed, but also, possibly, because, this being Llewyn’s POV, of his limited patience for impediments of any kind, especially emotional ones.) Do his pursuits need to transcend hammering that “L” in “Fare Thee Well,” or throwing out resonant echoes in “The Death of Queen Jane”—or might that be enough?
The complication, which makes our protagonist so hard to shake, and perhaps so easy to feel unsettled or condemned by, is Llewyn’s dissatisfaction and inchoate rage. Even if we accept the loop of life, even if we can appreciate his talents despite the lack of appreciation and missed opportunities and self-sabotage—he can’t, and won’t. Though what makes him harder to love is also what makes him more alive, more recognizably unstable. He strains against it all. He pushes against the cycle, even as he authors it. He’s vicious to people who want to help him, he’s careless about people he actually seems to care about. He wants to at least mind a cat he’s stuck with but can’t even be bothered to know its sex, let alone its name. (He later learns the Gorfeins’ cat is named is Ulysses, long after we’ve heard a receptionist mishear our wandering friend, stating, or perhaps foretelling, “Llewyn is the cat.”) He chases after it, but he’s always chasing after it, whatever it is. Moving defines him. Moving defines us too, until we’re still, finally.
In the last few shots of the film, Llewyn has stopped moving. Returning to a scene glimpsed at the beginning, he’s been punched out by the avenging southern husband to a warbling harpist he’d heckled the night before at the Gaslight—an explosion occasioned by jealousy and frustration over Jean, who seemingly affects him more than he lets her know. He’s left huddled on the ground, leaning against a wall at the corner where the alleyway meets the sidewalk, overhearing muffled evidence of Bob Dylan’s interpretation of “Fare Thee Well” from the Gaslight stage, looking over his shoulder while his assailant speeds away in a yellow cab. He scoffs through a bloody lip at the husband getting a cab—likely at his assailant’s ability to afford a cab, though he might also envy the escape. He’ll be leaving soon as well, having agreed to board a union freighter (“…it ain’t the leaving that’s a-grieving me” we can hear Dylan singing), but it won’t be the leaving of a comparatively wealthy southern man rejoining his wife and getting out of seedy New York, nor will it be the coming and going of Minnesotan Dylan reinventing himself on Llewyn’s home turf, nor is it the leaving and journeying of Kerouac and Cassidy, a repossessing of the highways and byways that connect New York to Minnesota and to the South and California. It’s the leaving of a defeated homegrown player having nowhere else to go, no bed to lie in in his own village; it’s the leaving of resignation, of knowing what you want and could be, but instead finding yourself huddling in the alleyway watching and listening to others having and being it.
Maybe our Ulysses gets on that boat, maybe he reverts to this loop, maybe he emerges from this grief and depression, maybe he just moves and drinks and copes; we’ll never know. The moments pass us by, carrying with them success, fame, happiness, opportunity, sometimes while we’re looking and sometimes when we’re not. Either way we’re still there, or here, saddled with the loss and regret, considering where and how to move next, or if it’s time to stop. Our versions end while the songs we inhabit keep going; the story ends, cutting to black, while the song keeps playing over the credits. It was never new and it never gets old. Meanwhile we were, and we do. And I’ve a feeling the song of Inside Llewyn Davis will continue to sound distinct, likely only more devastating and more valuable for being so, at whatever point we encounter it.