If you either love folk music (as I do), are a Coen Brothers devote (as I am), or just love great movies (as I do), I’m afraid I have some disappointing news: Inside Llewelyn Davis, which many of the trendy film critics are touting as either the best, or one of ten best films of the year, is not. Or let’s say that if it’s one of the ten best, the year has been a bad one for films (which it hasn’t).
That’s not to say that this film isn’t very interesting in many, many ways. Not to say it’s not worth seeing. After all, it’s a Coen Brothers film. Nothing they do is boring. But my problem is that the film is profoundly disturbing, and not in a good way, if you know what I mean.
Let’s review the plot: the hero (or anti-hero) is a young man, Llewyn Davis, in Greenwich Village circa 1961 (perhaps 1962) who’s trying to make it as a folk-singer. Though the real-life model for the character is supposed to be Dave Van Ronk (the film title is taken from a Van Ronk album, Inside Dave Van Ronk), I can’t possibly believe the real Dave Van Ronk was one-tenth as nasty and despicable as this character is. Therein lies the problem.
The dramatic tension at the heart of the film is between Davis as a talented, even gifted performer who desperately wants affirmation from his peers and audience; and the private Davis, who is a thoroughly dislikable, disreputable human being. So we learn that Davis was in a duo with his best friend, who committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Whenever he sings their song (the real life Dink’s Song, recorded by Van Ronk), you truly understand the gift that these two musicians had and what Davis has lost. Later, the singer auditions for a Chicago concert booker named “Grossman” (modeled on the real-life, Albert Grossman), and sings a gorgeous, plaintive version of The Death of Queen Jane. This is a man who deserves success, but who is not going to get it (this is a Coen Brothers film, after all).
In his private life, Davis is horrid: to women, to friends, to family, to cats. He cheats on his friend and gets his wife pregnant (not the first time he’s done this to a woman). The full measure of his capacity for empathy is to offer to pay for her abortion. He borrows money from friends that he can’t pay back. He sleeps on friend’s couches and has no home of his own. He is adrift.
After he discovers the woman he’s made pregnant has slept with the folk-club owner (possibly to get him a gig), he torments an Appalachian folk-singer from the audience with sexual innuendo and abuse, while in a drunken rage. He loses another friend’s cat. And when he fears that he’s run over the cat along the highway, he possibly (again this is a Coen Bros. film) leaves it to freeze to death in a winter storm.
The filmmakers themselves go to great lengths to create scenes which demean their hero. When Davis finally goes to visit his father, who is suffering from dementia, in an old age home, he sings the old man his favorite song. The camera parses the father’s blank face for signs of sensibility until, just as the song ends, we see movement which we think is finally a sign the father has heard and acknowledged his son’s gift. But then, Davis smells that his father has relieved himself and he has to go find an orderly to clean up.
This is a portrayal of the early 1960s not as a gauzy Greenwich Village travelogue. There are no all night hootenannies filled with love and song. This is purely calculated exploitation and abuse mixed with some great music. Undoubtedly, the 60s were a desperate time for many. It’s right to puncture ideals and myths when they twist reality or history. But the message I take from this is that for the Coen Brothers the reality of the 60s was cold, hard and brutal. Human beings were inhumane. They betrayed whatever values they claimed to represent in their professional or artistic lives.
That’s a tough message for someone like me, who was raised in the 60s, to take. While I don’t discount the hard times and rough characters, there was too much magic, too much transcendent beauty in the music, art, culture and politics of that era to settle for the Coen Brothers portrayal.
One final note, as I wrote above there is an important scene in which Davis sings The Death of Queen Jane for a Chicago producer, after which the latter, beautifully played by F. Murray Abraham, cynically says to the folk-singer: “I don’t hear a lot of money in it.” There are many reasons that song is perfect for the scene, but there is one thing that is very wrong historically. Though Queen Jane is a very old English folk song listed in Child’s Ballads (the earliest American recording is from 1935), the keening, elegaic melody of this version wasn’t written until 1969 or 1970 by Irish folk musician, Dáithí Sproule. He recorded it with his group Trian, and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill most famously recorded it with the Bothy Band for an album released in 1979. Thus, the music for this scene is a historical anachronism and something of which the Coen Brothers should’ve (and might’ve) been aware.
All that being said, the song is perfect for the scene because it portrays the death in childbirth of Queen Jane Seymour, one of the wives of King Henry VIII. As we watch Davis’ face convey the anguish of the lyrics about the slow, agonizing death of this beautiful, proud queen, we realize that it is something like the stillborn career of Davis himself. He aspires to greatness, but it will somehow never come to him.
While I suppose the filmmakers may be telling us that Davis will fail because as a human being he is not worthy of success, this is hard moral when it’s meant as the representation of an entire era.