Inside Llewyn Davis ★★★


Second viewing, no change, which breaks my heart. The movie just dies for me the moment Llewyn gets into the car with Roland Turner and Johnny Five—there's an almost phantasmagorical shift that seems completely wrongheaded, with the nadir being the ludicrous moment in which a highway patrolman arrests Johnny Five (for no very good reason, frankly) and just leaves the car's other occupants stranded on the roadside without so much as a word. This is the aspect of the Coens' sensibility that irks me, and it has nothing to do with whether or not they "like" their characters (I'm a huge fan of such exercises in pure contempt as Blood Simple and Burn After Reading); the issue is their kneejerk tendency to engineer humiliation as a means of kick-starting a deliberately stalled narrative. (See also Lebowski's "This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!") The one film in which they make this approach work is Barton Fink, which becomes more and more overtly surreal as it goes along, leaving reality far behind. Here, Llewyn arrives in a credibly brusque and unforgiving Chicago—Bud Grossman is no Jack Lipnick—after having driven halfway across the country with two unfunny* cartoons, and to my mind the movie never quite recovers from this tonal whiplash, with everything that follows feeling like a clockwork beatdown. Whereas the sublime first hour is content to observe a cat's reflection in the window of a subway car as it speeds downtown, or watch Llewyn discover Al Cody's own box of remaindered LPs stuffed under an end table. It's as if they start rushing to meet a mortification deadline.

* Admittedly subjective. I usually find the Coens hilarious, but they're prone to let John Goodman play a thundering grotesque whether one belongs in a given movie or not. It's even more damaging here than it is in O Brother, because the role is significantly larger.