In a special features interview on the Fargo DVD, Peter Stormare describes filming the scene where he and Steve Buscemi drive to Minneapolis to kidnap William H. Macy’s wife. “Where is pancake’s house?” the script calls for Stormare to ask Buscemi. When Stormare corrected “pancake’s house” to “pancake house,” Joel and Ethan Coen, the film’s directors, stopped him and insisted that the line had been written the way they wanted it. “Where is pancake’s house?” Dialogue in a Coen brothers’ film is a muscular, sculpted thing, almost tangible. And it’s this same stickling aesthetic sensibility that, at the end of the film, answers the question of how to dispose of Buscemi’s corpse not with any of the other less-perfect means available to Stormare’s character but with just the thing, a wood-chipper.
Indeed, film after film, the Coens know how to put objects to work. In the carefully built, curated, and stylized worlds of their films, things become invested with strange and often sinister power. Think of the Paul Bunyan statue keeping watch over Fargo’s Brainerd, the cattle gun Javier Bardem totes around the desert in No Country for Old Men, or the suction machine that often draws Richard Kind offstage to drain his sebaceous cyst in A Serious Man. What fun for the props department! Just imagine being responsible for populating the dimly lit Wunderkammer that is Rabbi Marshak’s office in A Serious Man (even if we only see the room for a handful of the film’s 106 minutes—talk about headroom!).
But sometimes the objects in a Coen brothers’ film do more than texture a frame or lend credibility to a fictional world—sometimes, through narratives of gain, loss, and recovery, specific objects become tied to the forward movement of the plot or subplot. At the beginning of A Serious Man, the bar mitzvah boy loses his earphones; at the end of the film, he reclaims them. Very often the object in question is money, often in some physical form: think again of Fargo, No Country, The Big Lebowski. Here objects become “objects” in another sense of the word—objectives, desires, important catalysts of action.
If Inside Llewyn Davis comes up short of the directors’ best films in any way, it may be due to a lack of “objects” in this second sense, a lack of points toward which the narrative inevitably strives. For over an hour and a half we witness a few days “inside” the life of the tired and grouchy eponymous singer as he rotates through his list of couches to crash on. He scores a chance recording gig with his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and takes a chance trip to Chicago with jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman, perfectly cast) and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), his valet (more of that perfectly wrought dialogue: Goodman pronounces the word with a hard “t”). He undergoes a few startling revelations and pays his Merchant Marine dues, but not much changes for him. Maybe he’s more unwound, maybe he’s closer to the end of his rope. “Hang me, oh hang me, and I’ll be dead and gone,” he sings, but of course the song is probably a fixture in his repertoire.
As a protagonist, Llewyn’s desires are abstract, defined in the negative, actually: through his music, he tells his sister Joy (Jeanine Serralles), he hopes to avoid merely “existing” like the rest of the world. This vagueness, the intangibility of Llewyn’s “object,” is another way of understanding why Anthony Lane, in his New Yorker review of the film, applies club owner/manager Bud Grossman’s (F. Murray Abraham) judgment of Llewyn’s playing—“You’re no front man”—to Llewyn as a “dramatic lead,” diagnosing “a lack of energy at the core” of the movie.
Or look at it the way Llewyn’s “it’s-complicated” friend and fellow folk singer Jean (Carey Mulligan) sees it: he just doesn’t plan for the future. He drifts, he mooches, he gets by. But if we think again about “objects” and “objectives,” this personal criticism can tell us something about the way the film works (or doesn’t). Llewyn doesn’t have a plan; neither does the plot. Contrasted with something like Fargo—where we have a clear plan with terms marked by tangible “objects” (a wife, a burnt umber Ciera, stacks of cash) that gets bungled in worse and worse ways, escalating toward climax (that wood-chipper)—Inside Llewyn Davis does seem to flag or flounder. It has none of the appealing, brutal logic of Fargo or No Country for Old Men. Like the animals in The Incredible Journey, the poster for which we see in close-up near the end of the film, Llewyn and his story don’t move via reason and heightening sequences of cause and effect. Instead, they have “only instinct to guide them.”
So where is the Coens’ homeless folk singer going? The film’s nods to the Odyssey (Llewyn’s trip to Chicago and back, an aptly named wandering kitty) suggest a search not simply for home but for return, completion, closure. And what’s unmoored Llewyn, what haunts him and the film alike, is the suicide of his musical partner, Mike Timlin. The death, suppressed for the most part to the background of the film and only rarely surfacing above the subtext to be addressed directly, has shattered Llewyn’s sense of himself as an artist. But unlike a pair of earphones locked in a rabbi’s office, this loss cannot be reclaimed. Mike is gone forever, and Llewyn, perhaps more Sisyphus or Orpheus than Odysseus, is left to struggle on alone into the chilly, undefined future.
But the film seems to embrace its own aimlessness and treadmill circularity: we begin and end with the same scene—Llewyn playing the Gaslight Café on a night in 1961. And for me this repetition is right, because it’s in the music itself that the heat and heart of the film reside. Moreover, by repeatedly suspending the action throughout to let Llewyn and the other musician characters play real full songs—not mere abridged suggestions of real full songs—the movie shifts its emphasis away from the push of time and plot, toward moments of reprieve from those things. Ultimately the work’s structure better resembles a song, returning where it started, than a logical proof. And just such a reprieve, at least for now, is what Llewyn needs. Time to mourn, maybe, time to elegize: “Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well,” he sings in his heartbreaking, now-partner-less rendition of “Dink’s Song.” It’s this elegy and the loss that produces it that make Inside Llewyn Davis, if less propulsive narratively, perhaps more fulfilling emotionally than anything the Coen brothers have given us yet.