‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ and the Beginning of the Coens’ End
In 1991, Joel and Ethan Coen released the film Barton Fink. This is a film that enjoyed unprecedented success at the Cannes Film Festival, winning not only the Palme d’Or, but also best actor for John Turturro and best director for Joel Coen. Raking in this many awards for one film was unusual for Cannes, which, as an unwritten rule, preferred that its juries spread the love among several films. So the board at Cannes decided to finally write down the rule. More importantly, Barton Fink, strange film though it is, helped the Coens break through—or at least significantly widened the crack in the wall they’d been pounding against since their 1984 debut, Blood Simple. That earlier movie remains the only Coen production that feels truly independent, where the budget was a serious issue they had to keep an eye on. As great as it is, after that they found themselves able to work with some pretty big-name actors, and their budgets increased, even if the finished films didn’t always capture the public’s imagination as they could—and indeed should—have. Until, again, Barton Fink, a kind of horror film set in 1940s Hollywood.
I won’t get into the ins and outs of Barton Fink’s wild plot; suffice it to say, Barton Fink (Turturro) is a pompously leftist playwright whose play is such a hit that he’s caught the attention of Hollywood, which wants him to come out to Los Angeles and write scripts for formulaic Wallace Beery wrestling pictures and the like. Unhappy with, and blocked by, the assignment given him by fictitious studio Capitol Pictures, Barton isn’t able to even get started until his own story has gone through its roller coaster of hilarity and horror, at which point inspiration strikes and in one night he writes a mammoth screenplay for an art film tangentially about wrestling. And the studio doesn’t want it.
Of course, following the arthouse success of Barton Fink, it wasn’t all beer and skittles for the Coens—their next film was the relatively expensive flop The Hudsucker Proxy, for example—but by and large, their reputation and success were set in stone; they would retain the right to final cut on their pictures that they’d had from the very beginning, and they could make almost anything they wanted. In fact, in an interview with the New York Times, while promoting The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, they talked about how far they had come in relation to how they began:
Joel: When we started out, it was just the default place because no one would give us money to make a movie. We would’ve taken it if it had been offered when we were making our first movie. We would’ve gone, “Is there somebody who will pay for this in a big Hollywood studio?” We were moving toward the indie thing, but in another way we were always hoping a big studio would release the movies. And there was a point where we looked at each other, and we went, “I guess we’re kind of the mainstream guys.” You know, when we won the Oscar.
Ethan: That’s true.
Joel: We said, “How’d that happen?”
Ethan: We are the establishment now.
A decade after the Coens won their first Academy Award, best original screenplay for Fargo, they cemented their place in the firmament when they won Oscars for best adapted screenplay, best direction, and best picture for No Country for Old Men (2007). An unlikely Oscar-winner—an extremely violent film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel that offers not a single ounce of hope to anyone in the theater—that film’s success began an extraordinary run of movies for the Coens. They released one a year through 2010: the similarly bleak but more hilarious Burn After Reading, their near-perfect take on the Charles Portis classic True Grit, and what is arguably their masterpiece, A Serious Man.
There followed then a three-year gap between films, not an uncommonly long time for the Coens; it was the one-a-year pace that was unusual for them (and, indeed, most filmmakers). They returned in 2013 with Inside Llewyn Davis, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary later this year. The film is about an arrogant, prickly, and deeply melancholy folk singer (the titular Llewyn Davis, played beautifully by Oscar Isaac). It takes place in early 1960s New York City, and as it begins Llewyn is still grieving the suicide of his musical partner, and friend, Mike Timlin. Between gigs at The Gaslight, Llewyn, who is essentially homeless, crashes at the apartments of friends, or former friends, and colleagues. He’s trying to make enough money to pay for his former girlfriend Jean’s (Carey Mulligan) abortion. So he makes what little money he can, whenever he can, including by providing backup vocals on a novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” written and performed by Jean’s husband, Jim (Justin Timberlake). In that scenario, Llewyn makes the short-sighted decision to accept the minimum payment immediately after the recording session has ended, instead of signing a document that will give him the right to royalties on the song.
Inside Llewyn Davis is in some ways about Llewyn making one bad decision after another, but at its heart—and this becomes more and more clear as the film reaches its end—it’s about a very gifted artist who is overlooked by other folk singers who are, yes, talented, but also far more bankable than Llewyn. And when we meet Llewyn at the beginning of the film, he’s already worn out by it all, sad about the death of his friend, completely lost about where to go next as a performer. If he hadn’t felt beholden to Jean (who hates him anyway), it’s pretty clear he never would have taken the “Please Mr. Kennedy” job. The song is ridiculous and stupid (and very funny), and Llewyn thinks he is better than that. But while the audiences at The Gaslight seem to appreciate him, this brings him no more money, and cuts no ice with those who matter. When Llewyn takes a road trip to Chicago, he goes to the famous music venue The Gate of Horn. There, he auditions for the club’s owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) by performing a gorgeous rendition of the traditional song “The Death of Queen Jane.” And all he gets back from Grossman, in one of the most deflating moments in the Coens’ filmography, is “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Near the end of the movie, when he sees Bob Dylan (Ben Pike) warming up for a gig at The Gaslight, Llewyn doesn’t know, but senses, that it’s about to all be over for him anyway, whether he likes it or not, no matter what he does to stave off the coming flood that will sweep him and his music away into total obscurity.
Inside Llewyn Davis marks the first time since Barton Fink that the Coens wrestled with the question of art versus commerce (the fact that Barton seems to be a pretty lousy writer is immaterial). In 1991, they still had the vibe of the upstart independent filmmakers who were such a bracing facet of American cinema in the 1980s and ’90s. By 2013, they were making films that might well turn into an award-winning juggernaut. Even though they didn’t always make money, or get nominated for anything at all, a new Coen brothers film had become an event. None of this was lost on them, as their next film was the 1940s Hollywood-set comedy Hail, Caesar!, which follows studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) through a variety of crises. This character was named after a real Hollywood fixer of the era, though the real Mannix wasn’t exactly as likable or as admirable as the fictional version. There’s probably something in that, as if the Coens were in some sense, and despite all their success, throwing up their hands, no longer wanting to be part of the establishment that Brolin’s Mannix personifies, because for the true artist in Hollywood, Mannix’s integrity is phony. After all, look at the real guy! I hardly think it’s a coincidence, or accident, that the studio their Eddie Mannix works for is Capitol Pictures, of Barton Fink fame, or infamy.
One gets the feeling that some of this cynicism comes from the hangover they’re still suffering from, following the collapse of their dream project, To the White Sea, based on James Dickey’s novel. This all went down in the late ’90s/early 2000s. The nature of that novel meant that the film would be nearly dialogue-free, very dark in tone, and breathtakingly violent. When No Country for Old Men came out, I wondered if this was the Coens’ way of wooing somebody to finance a second go at To the White Sea. If they can turn that material into a successful picture, why not To the White Sea, which was set to star Brad Pitt? Anyway, it didn’t happen. So what good is being part of the establishment?
Their last film, before their apparently amicable artistic separation, was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a Western anthology film made for Netflix. It is, I think, a truly wonderful movie, with some of the most skin-crawlingly unpleasant scenes and stories they’ve ever put on film. One of the stories is called “Meal Ticket.” It stars Liam Neeson as a kind of gutter impresario, driving his wagon from town to town and putting on a show with his star performer, Harrison (Harry Mellish), a young man with no arms or legs, but with a beautiful speaking voice. The impresario sets up a little stage for Harrison, who then recites great works of art to the audience, from Shelley and Shakespeare to the Gettysburg Address. In between these scenes, we see, for example, the impresario somewhat impatiently feeding Harrison; samples of their long, dull, snowy trips to the next town, and the next; and the impresario dressing after a session with a prostitute. We see that Harrison has been placed on the floor, his back to the activity, and suddenly his whole life flashes before our eyes.
On top of all this, they’re now making less and less money with each performance. After one particularly fruitless recital, the impresario notices another man like him, whose act is a chicken that does math. Not really, though, but the crowd is eating up the illusion. The impresario buys the chicken, and on the way to the next town, he notices a half-frozen pond beneath the road they’re traveling. With murder in his heart, he approaches Harrison in the back of the wagon, smiling a smile of Satanic disingenuousness. The last images of “Meal Ticket” are of the man with his new counting chicken, driving his wagon along, the artist who was once inside now no longer anywhere to be seen.