2016 Film Essays

A Serious Investigation: The Coen Brothers’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ (2013)


Leading up to the release of Hail, Caesar!, Vague Visages explores the work of Joel and Ethan Coen.

In Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, the subject performs as a part of the harmony for a song called “Please Mr. Kennedy.” It’s a gig, a job, a way to make money: Llewyn has no respect for this kind of music. Dripping with disdain before the performance, he asks “who wrote this song?,” and after the recording, Llewyn fatefully opts not to accept royalties. For him, folk music is not topical, it’s not cute: it’s a part of the fabric of America. You don’t just write folk music, folk music has a life of itself, and those who channel it are feeding the American mythology with their blood and tears. Davis’ prickly nature, wrought with the choices of a tortured bohemian artist, could easily have made him a part of the legend. Instead, his journey will be paved with missed opportunities, closed doors and abject failure.


The legends of blues, folk and jazz music always seem to invoke the supernatural. Late one night, moving from one town to the next and from one lonely show to another, you find yourself at a crossroads. In one version of this story, you meet up with the devil — and you sell him your soul. The devil can take on many forms, though. He can be the fallen angel of Christian mythology, or he can be a trickster. The trickster will not own your soul, but he will lead you down the wrong road. He will help guide you to your own self-destruction. Without ever meeting with the devil, Llewyn Davis finds himself on this path. When he looks at the world, he sees his own bad intentions in others. Like a Mobius strip, he closes doors on others before they can close the door on him, fulfilling his own perception of a cold, closed-off world. His desire to sever all the relationships in his life cements his inability to evolve and pull himself out of the trenches.


More than just finding himself at the wrong place, and at the wrong time, Llewyn Davis limits his own destiny. As many of the Coen Brothers’ films discuss the intersection between destiny and will, Inside Llewyn Davis complicates matters by featuring an artist who is not open to the possibility of success. As chance guides him towards well-meaning people and new situations (often through the form of Ulysses the cat), Llewyn does not heed the call. In most heroic narratives, the hero refuses the call when faced with the beginning of their journey, and they overcome that in order to set forward on their grand adventure. In many ways, Llewyn Davis is never able to overcome that threshold. Rather than embracing the metaphorical path into the unconscious (in order to re-emerge changed), Llewyn becomes inundated with feverish waking nightmares. These dreams are a final call, and as a possibly phantasmagorical Ulysses limps into the woods, the last remnants of Llewyn’s success goes with him. Destiny aches for Llewyn, willing him towards success, imposing on him a journey he seems to want no part of. Rather than allowing destiny to take its course, he willfully sabotages it. But then, the cycle begins again — will it be different this time, or is that door already closed? 

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.


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