One of my biggest takeaways from two semesters of screenwriting classes has been that a film’s protagonist does not need to be likeable. It is considered beneficial for the main character to be flawed, to have obstacles to overcome; think “Bertie” (King George VI) in The King’s Speech or Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood. Characters don’t need to do good deeds in order for them to be watchable. Such is the case with the Coen Brothers’ musical odyssey Inside Llewyn Davis.
I first saw Inside Llewyn Davis on December 23, nearly a month ago. My initial reaction was affected by a number of factors, including the theater I went to, where I was sitting (the very last row), the audience (or lack thereof… there was practically no one there), being there with a friend. Most of all I was affected by my tendency to nitpick details of historical accuracy. Why were there references to things that happened in 1962 or 1963 rather than 1961? And why was the music so obscure (to my ears, anyway)? The songs sometimes felt uncomfortably long.
Still, the images from the film stayed with me. The reflection of the cat gazing out of the train window. Troy Nelson walking away, back to Fort Dix. The endless array of chairs and tables at the roadside diner. The message scrawled on the bathroom stall. Llewyn trudging through the Chicago snow. I listened to the soundtrack and the music sounded more and more beautiful. As weeks passed and some of the more noisy, glitter-filled pit stops of awards season doled out their high honors – the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards – I wasn’t really thinking about American Hustle or Gravity or even my favorite film of the year, Nebraska. I was thinking of the overlooked one, Inside Llewyn Davis. So I saw it again earlier tonight.
Is it a difficult film to enjoy? Yes and no. Yes, if you want your main character to be 100% sympathetic and easy to love. No, since Llewyn is complicated, irrational, tired and above all, human, which anyone can relate to. The humanity is always there, even in Llewyn’s moments of rage and frustration. By the time you get to the end of the film, with Llewyn pouring every bit of heart and soul into his set at the Gaslight Café, your heart can’t help but swell. Or maybe it’s just my own individual heart that could not help but swell. (I can’t speak for others.) It wasn’t happiness, exactly, but emotions as complex as Llewyn Davis himself. There was something so impossibly wonderful about sitting there in the theater, alone yet surrounded by so many other people, letting the music sink into my bones.
There is a scene between Llewyn and Jean when Llewyn reminds her that “it takes two to tango.” That’s what I feel with this movie. Like my experience with Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, one time wasn’t enough. The images and the dialogue of Llewyn Davis stayed with me, haunted me, until I knew I needed to see it again. This time, sitting in another theater, which is smaller and more intimate, and sitting closer to the screen with a nearly sold-out crowd, I could truly say that I loved the experience. It swept me along in its folk-music tempest. It really is an incredible journey.