January 18, 2014

"Inside Llewyn Davis" (2013) by Joel and Ethan Coen

The soundtrack of "Inside Llewyn Davis" is playing on loop on my machine as I type these words. After an underwhelming first watch of this film last October, and reading its screenplay, I went to watch the final show of its very limited public screening last evening, despite a sprained foot. By the time the movie ended, I knew what my screenplay review is going to be like. And I knew that it had to start with this very honest confession: had it not been a script by the Coens, I would have rejected and ridiculed it. Reasons? Please read on.


If you have to write a film on the folk music scene in New York in the 60s, why would you not choose Bob Dylan, or other successful musicians? Why would you write a film on failure and hopelessness? And then you choose to depict one week of this singer's life, a week of an odyssey that, in words of Ethan Coen, takes him nowhere. Why would you take the risk of attempting such a story?

The answer to these questions is the filmography of the Coen Brothers, a filmography that has constantly tried to push the envelope with their themes, content, and aesthetic. Joel Coen says that failure for them is definitely more interesting a theme than success. And if cinema can dare go beyond what can be easily depicted, you do not have many film-makers who can be trusted to successfully do that. Finally it all makes sense to me. How do you show that "nothing is happening in someone's life", if you have significant plot movement? Also, from the perspective of the protagonist, a lot has happened in this one week: discovering and then trying to handle the pregnancy of his friend's wife he has been sleeping with, taking a crazy trip to Chicago and back, deciding to join the merchant marine and failing to, and eventually getting thrashed by a stranger outside the cafe he just performed at. This last incident is what had inspired the Coens in the first place, the idea of Dave Van Ronk, on whom the lead character is loosely based, getting beaten up by a stranger. Why would that happen? Who would do that? It was this that set them to write this film. And, well, they did find their answers. Didn't they?

Because this "nothingness" might not be the conventional stuff of movies, but is very much a part of artists unwilling to compromise, and going through an unending series of failure and disappointment. Llewyn is not the only artist suffering in the film. The elderly woman whom he insults during her performance is also one of the crowd of such failed artists. And it is her husband who thrashes Llewyn the next night. What led to Llewyn's outburst the previous night is the film. Of course, like all their previous films, characters remain the strongest aspect of the Coens' writing. Every single role, including those who appear for merely seconds, has been crafted with amazing and amusing attention to delicious details. And the spoken lines, those lines that you enjoy reading on the script, appear so much more impactful when they come alive on screen through these wonderful actors! To add to this, is the almost intimidating richness of the back-story. We writers know how tempting it is to not dwell much on the back-story and focus only on the main plot. The biggest learning from "Inside Llewyn Davis" for me is to realise yet again the importance of a writer's hard-work on the back story.

The scene descriptions that the Coens use are generally sparse, although never "unfilmable". The language they use is not English, but "American", pleasurable and inimitable. The most striking stylistic feature of the screenplay is to see how the writers have completely given up the convention to use scene headings. They neither use "EXT/INT" nor do they mention the time of the scene ("DAY/NIGHT"). They simply write: "HALLWAY" or "GAS STATION", and at times even "LLEWYN AT REGISTER" or "FULL NIGHT".

However, the script maintains pretty much a structure in three acts, including a major "page 17 plot event" (when Jean reveals her pregnancy to Llewyn) and a "resolution" of its own. After the futile trip to Chicago, Llewyn finally gives up and decides to join merchant marine. However, thanks to the character of his sister seeded earlier, he fails to. Everything going wrong continues to go wrong and this only means that destiny won't let him leave the music scene. The apparently circular structure of the screenplay, by smartly opening and ending with the same scene, reinforces this endlessness Llewyn is caught in, a cycle he cannot escape. There are portions in the script, like between pages 61 and 75 that cover Llewyn's car ride with Johny Five and Roland Turner, that appear a tad too long. I don't think deleting as many as ten pages from this portion would have lessened the impact of the film. Although even in such sequences, you never give up hope. You get this feeling that something is going to happen, in every scene - almost the sentiment Llewyn would feel every single morning, only to be disappointed again.

I was already convinced of the merits of the script as I read it a couple of days ago. But while watching the movie last evening something caught my attention, and has been bothering me since. It is the use of the cat in the plot. Joel Coen says that they were worried at one point about the film lacking any plot, and hence they "threw the cat in". However, I am increasingly believing that the cat is more than a MacGuffin, added to give more than just a "sense of plot movement". If we see the script chronologically, it opens with the cat, that lands on the chest of Llewyn and they have an eye-contact that almost "connects" them. As Llewyn leaves the house, the cat leaves with him, and eventually dangerously jumps out of the window of Jean's house. Has it something to do with Jean's disgust toward Llewyn, and the fact that both are not welcome here? Later, Llewyn spots the cat as he is arguing with Jean at a cafeteria. He thanks Jean for that, not knowing that this is not only a different cat, it is also a female. The Gorfeins find out that it is not their cat only when Llewyn has finished insulting them and spoiling their evening. He then carries this cat, down to Chicago, "not knowing what to do with it". But then, he abandons it, almost cruelly, in the car when the cops take Johny Five away. What does this lead to? Llewyn's final disappointment, when Bud Grossman coldly rejects him after giving him hope. On his way back, Llewyn accidentally injures a "small animal", described in the script as "a badger- or ferret-sized creature", and visibly feels guilty for that. Immediately after this, Llewyn gives up - and decides to join the merchant marine. Finally, when Llewyn goes to the Gorfeins, he surprisingly receives a warm welcome, despite last time's incident, and then he gets to know that the very same morning, their original cat had "found his way back". It is also now that we finally get to know the cat's name, although question regarding its name had come up at least twice earlier in the script. The cat is called Ulysses. Next day, just before the final scene, Llewyn spots on the street a movie poster - "The Incredible Journey", bearing the illustration of a cat with two dogs, and the tag-line "A Fantastic True-Life Drama."

I have not read Homer's "Odyssey", the protagonist of which is called Ulysses. But Wikipedia says it has the themes of temptation, disguise, identity, exile, and most importantly hospitality, where travellers and beggars often knock on strangers' doors hoping to find a place to stay. Knowing the Coens' love for weaving such details in their works, can we discard this all as coincidence, or should we try to find more meanings into the text? After all, the Greek name of Ulysses was "Odysseus", which meant "trouble", referring to both the giving and receiving of trouble in his wanderings. Isn't the cat, Ulysses, then very much a zoomorphism of the protagonist, Llewyn Davis, himself?

1 comment:

  1. Just after posting this review, I found this: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/12/whats-really-going-on-with-the-cat-in-em-inside-llewyn-davis-em-a-theory/282583/

    What a read!