Inside Llewyn Davis has received a lot of critical acclaim, but probably more about the soundtrack by T Bone Burnett than by the film by Joel and Ethan Coen. Like many of the Coen Bros. films, there are unlikable people, but less of the quirk or the criminal that keep people interested. Instead, it is the story of a wandering performer, following his wandering and his interactions between a variety of girls, musicians, managers, and music admirers. It just doesn’t seem as entertaining as many of the Coen’s films.
I believe that it is one of Coen’s “message” films, with a symbolic plot. And it deals with many of the same themes and ethical queries as their previous film A Serious Man. Before I discuss the themes of Llewyn Davis, I’d like to spend some time on A Serious Man and the themes in that film.
Warning: there are serious spoilers ahead.
A Serious Man takes place in 1967 and is the story of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish professor whose life is falling apart. His wife is leaving him for another man, he is bribed and then threatened by a student failing his class, his brother is accused of various legal issues and his son, who is about to have his bar mitzvah, is a first class jerk. He feels that his life is falling apart, and he doesn’t understand why. After all, “I didn’t do anything.”
The film makes it clear that his main problem is just that: He isn’t doing anything. He is so passive that he is allowing others to enact evil around him without taking any action against it. He is just moving from one bad situation to another, which he neither created nor did anything to prevent.
A central theme in the film is the situation in which a being is neither one or the other, but in stasis. This is introduced with the story of Schrodinger’s cat, who is in a box, in a state of both being alive and dead, until the box is opened and then it is either one or the other state. Even so, there are many situations in the film which is neither here nor there. Larry is married and not married. His wife is both married to him and to Sy. F Troop is both on and off. And the rabbi at the beginning of the film is both a dybbuk (a ghost/demon) and is not.
What changes all of these situations is direct action, which Larry won’t take. He just wanders from person to person, being pushed or led or advised, while he never does anything.
The main conclusion to this theme is found in the conversation with the senior Rabbi, whom Larry is unable to speak with, but his son, having just had his bar mitzvah, could speak to the Rabbi. Rabbi Marshak quotes from Jefferson Airplane, as if their lyrics were Torah—the word of God--, “When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies…” and he expects Danny, a student of the Torah, to come up with the next line. And that line is the center point of the movie: “Don’t you want somebody to love, don’t you need somebody to love, wouldn’t you love somebody to love, you’d better find somebody to love.”
The issue in the film is that each person is either passive or doing evil to others around them. The film is about why there is evil in the world, and the answer is: because too few people are actively loving. Everything is in stasis because some are passive, and there is evil because some are acting out evil against their fellow man. But if the passive would actively stop the evil and begin to actively love, then evil would no longer reign in the world. But, instead, we live in a world of selfishness and inaction.
Okay, now we are ready to talk about Inside Llewyn Davis.
Llewyn isn’t exactly passive the way that Larry is in A Serious Man. Llewyn is a travelling musician, trying to make a career for himself, attempting to get gigs and to get money for his album. But something seems to be stopping him.
As a “mistaken” line in the film shows, Llewyn is the cat whom he happens to be carrying around with him. And the cat is neither here nor there, neither this nor that. Assuming that the cat is the same one throughout the film, it is both male and female, both housed and wandering (it’s name is Ulysses, the epic wanderer), both alive and dead. Just like Schrodinger’s cat. And so is Llewyn. He acts and makes decisions, but they never accomplish anything. Even when he decides to give up on his music and become a merchant marine, he find that he is unable to. What is his problem?
His problem is his lack of connection with other people, his lack of love. He never stays in any one place, he never grows roots. He impregnates two girls, but he never becomes a father, either through abortion or because he doesn’t follow through. He agrees to not receive credit for a song he helps record. He used to have a partner, but his troubles start when his partner commits suicide. He is invited to join a trio, but he refuses. And when he is invited, the theme of the movie is spoken to him by a nightclub manager (quote is approximate): “You’re an okay singer, but you’re no good on your own.”
Like A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis is a study of a man who thinks he can live his life without pursuing love. Through these negative examples, the Coens hope to prod us toward love.
In the end, I think that A Serious Man is a better film. The characters are more compelling and Larry's plight really draws us on, while Llewyn just seems kind of pathetic. Also, A Serious Man weaves a variety of stories on their theme, allowing us to see a number of perspectives, while Llewyn Davis is a more straight forward (and less interesting) approach. I like them both, but only one makes my top 100.