Inside Llewyn Davis

I read the script for this movie over a year ago. I did not like it at all. I thought it was a mediocre effort from brothers with more writing talent than they knew what to do with. In fact, reading the script bolstered this unsubstantiated idea that I have long held [half seriously] that the Coens actually take turns writing their films. One of these brothers is a genius; the other is slightly below average. Their films tend to split pretty evenly, for me, into unbelievably good, and awful—with clockwork-like regularity. The inference is there… so to speak.

llewynandthecat_insidellewyndavisHowever, I reread the script a few days ago and my opinion of its merits changed. I still don’t think it’s from the genius Coen, but maybe the inferior brother is beginning to learn a trick or two?

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) Without looking I’m willing to bet that, in my two previous reviews of Coen Brothers scripts, I’ve never taken a point from these guys when it comes to dialogue. That is not going to change with Part A of this question.

Once again, the Coens confirm all my thoughts about iceberg exposition. They drop us into Llewyn’s world with no preamble. They don’t set him up as a womanizing, dead beat dad, failed merchant marine, with an incontinent father, and a dead music partner, on page one. They simply write a character who has these issues and then they let us get to know him in his natural context.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Of course their dialogue is rich in subtext. Whichever of the Coens is the genius must do at least one read for subtext because a Coen Brother’s script, NO MATTER HOW AWFUL IT IS, is always full of subtext.

[My version of this PDF doesn’t allow copying and pasting, so I will have to talk about scenes in generalities rather than quoting them. ]

On page 16 Jean notices that Llewyn has “taken care” of the Gorfein’s cat by bringing it to her house so that she and Jim could take care of it. This draws into relief all the subtext we’ve been exposed to in the previous 16 pages AND ALSO tells us a lot about Jean.

Why does she put up with this behavior if she can see it so clearly?

A point which gets measurably deepened [just like I love] when we find out a page later that Jean might be pregnant with Llewyn’s child.

Of course, on page 103 we find out that Nick Porco [Pappi Corsicato in the film version] might also be the father of Jean’s child which adds even more subtext to the interactions between Llewyn and Jean.

In short the subtextual writing on display in every script I’ve ever read by the Coens demonstrates a level of mastery which can’t be taught:

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) The voices are unique. This is why actors line up to play parts for the Coen Brothers. If they weren’t so otherworldly with subtext, I would be making a big deal over their ability to write great characters. Perhaps there is some redundancy to the themes the Coens choose, but when it comes to dialogue, they remain the standard by which you should judge yourself.

10 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

Not at all. These first ten pages are pretty bad the first time you read them. They improve dramatically when one knows that the opening shots are actually a fast forward, but since the Coens don’t announce this fast forward in any way, it’s just a middle of the road boring beat down—the first time you read it.

After that we meet the cat and there is a bit of interesting ballet between Llewyn and this feline involving an accidentally locked door. This was much better, but not good enough to salvage a poor beginning. The fact is, by page 10, Llewyn has taken a punch and locked himself out of an apartment. This is slow by any standard:

8 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) Looking back on my original reading from over a year ago, it was clearly in the four parts of this structure question that I felt the script let me down. Inside Llewyn Davis has EXACTLY five reveals. In order of importance [not chronology] they are:

Llewyn is a father
Llewyn’s partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge
Jean’s baby could be anybody’s
The script ends where it begins
Llewyn Saves the [Wrong] Cat

[I word it this way to draw attention to what they were doing. If you don’t think this cat stuff was done on PURPOSE to have a little fun at Mr. Snyder’s expense… you are mistaken.]

Five reveals is on the light side of enough. The only way this is going to work well is if these reveals feel like sucker punches while reading. They do not:

6 out of 10 points.

Part B) I believe this script has a literal and a metaphorical engine. The actual motivation that pushes Llewyn through his script is the need to be warm, fed, and have a place to lay his head at night. In other words, Llewyn badly needs a home. Since home is a stand-in for acceptance, welcome, and security, I will also claim that the engine that pushes Llewyn through his script is his desire to find love. Love being the only thing that accepts, welcomes, and secures. Interestingly, Llewyn looks in all the RIGHT places and comes up empty. Everyone: his family, his friends, his lovers, his employers [acting as the gatekeepers of his Art] rejects Llewyn.

I found this aspect of the script to be exceptional:

5 out of 5 points.

inside-llewyn-davis-oscar-isaacPart C) The Pinch Point of Inside Llewyn Davis comes in Chicago in the form of a line of dialogue from Bud Grossman about the difference between Troy Nelson and Llewyn:

Good kid. (nods thoughtfully) Good kid.

Llewyn rises. Bud Grossman continues:

…yeah, he connects with people.

Which means, Llewyn doesn’t. The defect, then, is in Llewyn. The world cannot love Llewyn because Llewyn cannot love the world. Except, this sentence is delivered by Grossman. The sentence is delivered by a…

Gross Man.

Maybe this script is hiding a thematic reveal? Oh, how I love those:

5 out of 5 points.

Part D) We are now at theme and I think, if there is to be a resolution here, it surely will come from this unacknowledged flashback that begins our story. The first scene in this script is identical with the last scene in this script. Usually, when that happens, the writer is using the rest of the script to explain the context from which this initial scene grew.

For example, there is a spec that I read around the same time I first read Llewyn called Good Kids. (1) It begins with this scene of fire and debauchery and danger. Everything that follows this flash-forward is meant to show us how we ended up at fire, debauchery, and danger.

Inside Llewyn Davis’ flash-forward is not made from this usual material. The Coens, according to my interpretation, are not simply subverting the usual causal order, they are placing Llewyn inside a Time Loop—like the one in Groundhog Day, All You Need is Kill, or Looper. This loop sums to Llewyn, for sure, but the unanswered question is: who is to blame?

My wager is that the Coens believe it is FATED that Llewyn not know love because, according to their story,

Love is Impossible.

This interpretation arises from the return trip Llewyn makes from Chicago to New York. Four things happen in this incredibly powerful but also incredibly understated sequence.

1. Llewyn sees the exit sign for Cleveland, the place where his child is, and he decides not to take this exit.
2. He hits a “badger or ferret-sized” animal with his car during the blinding snowstorm. The animal limps to the side of the road and escapes into the trees before we “get a good look at it”.
3. He sings “Ladies of Spain” (2)
4. The person beside Llewyn in the car SLEEPS through all three of these events.

If that is not a metaphor for:

Love is impossible

then I don’t know metaphors.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) The story is interesting to me. I think it is sort of like imagining [according to the rules of a screenplay] why Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence becomes a nightmare if God is not good. To me, that is fresh:

5 out of 5 points.

Part B) The Coens are brilliant and they deserve their accolades as filmmakers. Perhaps, they don’t get enough credit as writers? I would argue no one currently writing screenplays approaches their level of craftsmanship.

5 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script. To borrow from As Good As It Gets: Did the movie make us want to be a better person? (10 points)

This script is hard. I imagine that there will be many critics who dismiss it as boring and directionless. My disagreement is a matter of degree. I will not fully let the Coens off the hook because they are smart and have done something interesting thematically.

Like the rudderless critics of boredom, I also want an entertaining story. Inside Llewyn Davis is only entertaining in so far as it is challenging:

6 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 80


3 responses to “Inside Llewyn Davis

  1. Finally got around to watching this movie. It is a story, I think, that improves the more times you are exposed to it.

    • For sure, it’s not what I would want for something I wrote myself.

      I did like the movie when I watched it. It won’t ever make one of my best of lists, but I enjoyed the viewing experience.

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