It’s been a harsh year. Starting 2013 at virtually the same place I was in 2012, I figured it was time for a change and do a little planning. Savings were looking great, intentions to cover any and all film festivals were put in place, and I was going to leave my job after amassing just enough. Before too long those plans unraveled: unjustifiably fired from my job of two years followed by a car accident, my luck simply was not swinging my way. Things have settled and even progressed in some ways. All my setbacks have evened out in one way or another, though the overarching sense that my plans just weren’t met this year linger in my mind.
I thought about these setbacks while watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Llweyn (Oscar Isaac) has his own share of setbacks. He’s roaming New York’s Greenwich Village without a home, moving from bed to bed with the sort of reverie haze that defined Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. He’s impregnated his friend’s girlfriend. His singing partner has committed suicide. The success of Llewyn’s solo album is tepid, at best. And with only a corduroy jacket, he’s ill-equipped for the upcoming winter. That kind of unfortunate luck puts things in perspective, that’s for sure. But Llewyn has plans too: he wants to make it as a solo act. Despite the strains of his day-to-day living, when he’s afforded the opportunity to sit behind a microphone and strap on his guitar, he’s brilliant. He’s an artist and if the lyrical content of his songs don’t detail his tale of woe, than his hushed voice certainly does.
The Yiddish phrase “Man plans and God laughs” may as well describe every Coen brother film but after decades of synthesis it’s reached its greatest potency in Inside Llewyn Davis. The contemptuous Old Testament God as the instigator of suffering looms throughout the picture, though His role in Davis is that of observer. Llewyn Davis, a remarkable talent with an angelic voice, is hindered by his own hubris. A self-aware pure artist, Davis is unwilling and too stubborn to jeopardize his artistic integrity and as such is doomed to failure. But can you blame him? I outlined some of the extenuating circumstances at play against Llewyn and his dour recalcitrance is the product of harsh experiences. Death and homelessness merely scrape the barrel of his sorrow. The film maneuvers from New York City to Chicago where Davis goes for broke and plays for renowned producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). In an achingly beautiful scene, Davis plays “The Death of Queen Anne” as Grossman pensively observes. The silence as Davis awaits Grossman’s verdict is one of the most painful scenes to bear in Inside Llewyn Davis.
There are certain films that you watch at simply the right time in your life. Inside Llewyn Davis is one of those films where I see pieces of my own worldview in action. But it’s not merely an exercise in stroking my own ego. Rather, it presents its material in a blunt manner that always me to recognize faults in that same worldview. I don’t want to outright say this is a film that has changed my life but it perhaps best reflects the picture’s effect. The film is about the making of a human being through the harshness of life itself. Life can be harsh and our behaviors reflect the cumulative effect of that harshness. I can only absorb the trauma and move forward, hoping to be a little wiser from my experiences. And in Llewyn’s case, I can only hope for the same.