The thing about Llewyn is, he’s a bit of dick, to put it plainly. Over the course of the film we come to have a little understanding about why this is, and the structure of the film even gives us a little chance to revisit that initial assessment at the end. He’s not a dick like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street — he’s not hateful at a fundamental level — but he’s a man in need of some social graces. So, starting with a vaguely obnoxious character in an iconic American setting (Greenwich Village in the early-60s), the new Coen brothers movie has crafted a story of quite considerable pathos which has already attracted plenty of impassioned online essays, itself always a good sign.
As you may already know (or have guessed from the setting), this is a story based in the roots of the folk scene in the 1960s that gave us such figures as Bob Dylan, as well as plenty of others who’ve largely faded from view, of whom Llewyn is one (it’s been suggested he’s loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a figure of that era). There’s a nostalgic glow (well, it’s some form of cultural nostalgia, not one I personally have) that comes from seeing those old LP covers, with their blocky text and frontal shots of a morose singer-songwriter, and the cinematography itself has a similar slightly-faded, soft-focused, battered charm. Llewyn was in a duo but now performs solo at a folk dive hangout, alongside crooning Irish barbershops and earnest Arkansas grandmothers. He has no great success, and his life is a shambles. He’s a connoisseur of people’s couches, and we see him settling into one for the first time, assessing its comfort level. He has a prickly relationship with June (Carey Mulligan), another folk singer who is already partnered up with well-meaning but earnestly dull sweater-wearing Jim (Justin Timberlake). And his label is a joke.
These are just the jumping off points, though. It’s a character study, as the film’s title suggests, and it’s one grounded in failure — I might even go so far as to say this film should take its place in the pantheon of great American films about failure (like the flipside of that far-too-often-evoked theme of ‘the American Dream’). Llewyn is resistant to the idea of everyday life; his folk music isn’t a protest against anything except settling down and working a steady job like his retired dad had in the merchant marines.
The songs aren’t just a period affectation, though. There’s a tremendous amount of generosity towards them, and most are featured in their entirety. The film starts and ends with Llewyn playing, and in between we get to hear a number of others, all presented largely uncut. It’s through the songs, for example, that we get a sense of Llewyn’s relationship with his departed musical partner (“Dink’s Song/Fare Thee Well”, especially when performed in the company of his older middle-class friends — or perhaps patrons, after a fashion, given the way they exhibit him to their learned friends each time he visits). It’s also through the songs he sings that we learn how he sees himself, and about his relationship with his father. Finally, they bring us back to that early-60s milieu: the only protest song we hear in the end is a quaint one addressed to President Kennedy, criticising the space race.
Around the songs is structured a heavily allusive narrative, which loops back in on itself, repeating and slightly reconfiguring some of the events. The story ends where it begins, with an encounter in a darkened alley. There’s the repetition of his living arrangements (couches to couches), and then there’s the cat who accompanies Llewyn on some of his travels, who has escaped from the flat of that middle-class couple where he was crashing at the beginning. It’s been seized upon by those essay writers as an integral element, which helps to elucidate some of what the film is about — although perhaps “elucidate” is the wrong word. Still, it seems freighted with meaning, starting with its peripatetic name: Ulysses, as much bringing to mind the Coen’s earlier film O Brother, Where Art Thou? as any classical allusion. It feels appropriate, then, that John Goodman should return, and the strangeness of the sequence he appears in — accompanying Llewyn in a car journey from New York to Chicago — as well as the singularity of his character feels of a piece with that earlier role as a Cyclops-like Bible salesman.
Indeed this ultimately is a mythical journey, in an almost-equally mythic American setting, that returns ultimately to failure. At least, so it seems for the title character. For the viewer, however, it’s as grand a success as any film the Coen brothers have crafted, and a reminder to doubters like myself that sometimes they can really get things right.
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 9 February 2014.