A collaborating duo (The Coen Bros) make a movie about the worst thing that could ever happen to them: what if one brother dies, and the other must keep on living.
It’s difficult to not see this story as a compassion plea for the loss of a best friend, brother, or artistic collaborator. That the Coen Bros would imagine such a narrative and overlay on it a Greenwich Village 60’s folk scene is a testament to their skill in the most “folk” of abilities: storytelling.
We follow Llewyn Davis, surrounded by very nice people, that he can’t bring himself to care about. He gets good career opportunities, but if only he could change his attitude, he might not give up so easily.
Naturally, in his loser ways, his only intimate relationship with the opposite sex is with a nymphomaniac (Jean played by Carey Mulligan) who takes vicious pleasure in patronizing him. The first half of the film establishes that his network of relationships, although very supportive, hangs by a single thread, and he can’t help but pull at it. Is this the emotional repercussion of losing something like your best friend?
Llewyn fails as a solo artist because he cannot project the necessary context to make his performances more palatable. The problem is that, for brothers, or best friends, the Other is something of a sole anchor. No one else is real. So when one goes, nothing else matters. For the art to remain good, or to at least have a chance, some of that pain has to be externalized. He is even given a chance to join a trio, but he refuses. Something about pairs maybe? Two or nothing.
My initial review was a plea for compassion for the main character. Why? Because the kind of loss he suffers is too easily misunderstood. In the second half of the story, which becomes a road trip to Chicago, he hauls up in car with a more extreme version of a collaborative duo. Roland Turner, the cantankerous hipster jazz musician, played by John Goodman, and his “valet”/helper, Johnny Five. But Turner’s addiction to morphine (or heroin) is sustainable only if Johnny sticks around. So when Five gets inexplicably picked up by the cops, Llewyn leaves his cat with Turner, as a reminder of that wandering spirit and elusive companion that some of us need, but have lost.