Premise: (from IMDB) A singer-songwriter navigates New York's folk music scene during the 1960s.
About: Loosely based on folk singer Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, the Coen brothers’ latest opus is set to star Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake. Shooting started February 2012.
Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen
Details: 113 pages. Unknown revision.
I love the Coen brothers with a wholehearted passion, but I’ll just come out and say it: Inside Llewyn Davis has no plot. It could have just as easily been called A Series of Shitty Things Happen to Llewyn Davis. Not that this is new territory for the Coens, who I’ve always admired for their ability to tell stories about three-dimensional characters who despite going through complete character arcs never learn a damn thing. Nevertheless, there’s usually some sort of plot device to serve as a through-line. A murder to solve and/or cover up. A treasure to find. A soiled rug to replace. Inside Llewyn Davis has none of that—and is shaping up to be by far the most stream-of-consciousness of the Coens’ canon (with the possible exception of Barton Fink). So the question is: can even the great Coens tell a compelling story with little to no plot? Let’s find out!
Llewyn Davis, not-quite-famous folk musician, lives paycheck to paycheck and couch to couch in the New York City of 1961. As a new solo act (his former partner committed suicide), he’s finding it even harder than usual to bring in cash. He can’t book gigs. His records aren’t selling. On top of that, he’s running out of couches to crash on.
From this point on, Llewyn weaves through problem after problem. He loses his friend’s cat. He impregnates another friend’s wife—and now has to raise money for an abortion. He loses his pilot’s license and now can’t even get a job down at the shipyard. And throughout it all, he’s frantically trying to grab a hold of that elusive fame that he desires—which proves to be as tricky to hold onto as the Gorfeins’ cat. To put it simply, his life is fucked. He tackles each obstacle single-mindedly, never giving up but also never thinking farther ahead than tomorrow’s couch. Like Charlie of the Kingston Trio’s MTA, Llewyn is doomed to ride forever in metaphorical circles. Llewyn’s tragic flaw is not that he is afraid of the future—but that it never even enters his mind.
The more Llewyn deals with his friends, the worse he gets. Everyone he knows is more successful, better adjusted, more grown up, more stable than he is. As he steers through dinner parties, a road trip with two eccentric companions (true to Coen form, one a chatterbox and the other a mute) and a healthy discussion of jiggling cat scrotums, Llewyn starts to think that maybe he should just hang up his guitar for good. Maybe he’d be better off forgetting his art and devoting his life to menial labor.
But when the chance finally arises for Llewyn to grab his life by the balls and get his dream audition for the legendary Bud Grossman, will he grab those balls—or just let them hang like a cat’s scrotum?
The script delivers on all the beloved Coen beats: fascinating and bizarre characters, clever dialogue, well-crafted scenes, people surnamed Grossman, etc. All the same, it treads new ground for them in terms of structure. The Coens said that they’re shooting for a Robert Altman-style pace—and the whole thing is more than a little reminiscent of Arlo Guthrie and Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (even down to the comatose estranged father). All in all, we’re not talking about a four-quadrant picture here. Nevertheless, the thing I found fascinating was that no matter how many times I wondered, “Is this going anywhere?”— I kept turning the pages. And I was at the end of the script before I knew it. Intriguing! How did they do that?
Our hero’s got a goal: artistic success. The stakes are high: immortality via his music. The urgency is where it gets weird: Llewyn has a sense of urgency, but it’s always misdirected at his here-and-now problems rather than toward his ultimate goal. He constantly puts off opportunities that could lead to something bigger in favor of finding a couch for tonight. Unlike the militantly lazy Jeff Lebowski who will stop at absolutely nothing to obtain his ideal life of doing absolutely nothing, Llewyn Davis knows exactly what he wants but just lacks any drive to make it happen. He’s waiting for life to happen on his own terms, but we soon realize that those terms will never come true. The result is that we experience a disconnect with our protagonist—we’re constantly yelling “No Llewyn! Stop and think for a second!” Kind of like an existential horror movie.
The interesting (some might say frustrating) thing about the script is this: while it might seem totally random and directionless, it’s painfully obvious that that’s exactly how the writers want it to be. Llewyn’s life is random and directionless. He doesn’t think about where he’ll be in four pages, so we never know either. Time after time, we’re presented with loaded guns that would serve as plot devices in any other movie: an affair with your friend’s wife. Finding out you have a two-year old kid in another state. But none of them ever go off. This would seem like a flaw in any other screenplay, but in this one it’s a perfect representation of Llewyn’s mindset: he always means to get something done, but never follows through.
So sure, it all ties in together thematically—but with a less seasoned writer, the whole thing could still be a one-way ticket to Just-Shoot-Me-In-The-Faceville, USA. So what do the brothers do to keep us interested? It’s pretty simple, actually.
Just like any good writer should do, they approach each scene as its own story. Regardless of whether it relates to the scene before it or after, every single scene has characters with conflicting goals trying to get what they want. One of the very first exchanges is Llewyn trying to get an elevator operator to take his friends’ cat for the day. The operator is obviously appalled at this idea. So we’ve got conflict. Does it have anything to do with folk music? Not directly. But it’s interesting.
That’s not to say that everyone should throw random cats into their screenplays for conflict. This cat does have a larger thematic meaning later on, but that’s beside the point.
Here are a few more tactics Joel and Ethan use…
LITTLE OBSTACLES: Little problems keep people interested. As I mentioned, the script starts with Llewyn accidentally releasing his friends’ cat into the city. So during the set-up as we’re getting to know our protagonist, we’re treated to various scenes of him chasing a cat. Even totally disregarding that the cat is a great physical manifestation of Llewyn’s struggle for success which always slips out of his grasp, I want to keep reading because seriously, what’s he gonna do with that cat? Cats can be total assholes—dragging one through New York City all day without a carrier would be hell. So by the end of the set-up, I’ve been so distracted by the cat that I don’t even realize I’ve already bonded with the main character. Now I’m ready to follow him with or without a cat.
FOCUSING ON CHARACTERS: This is something at which the Coens have always excelled, but it bears repeating because it’s so damn important. Nothing sucks the energy out of screenplays like throwaway characters. The building manager at Jim and Jean’s apartment isn’t just BUILDING MANAGER. He’s Nunzio, the old Italian man who likes to wear high-waisted pants. He’s brusque but not in an unfriendly way. He hangs out in an office down the hall. I like him. And he has two lines in the entire script. I doubt that Joel and Ethan are drafting a sequel called Inside Nunzio the Building Manager—but based on his two scenes, I wouldn’t really mind. Obviously this goes double for main characters—but no matter how big the role, putting in time for character work always makes scenes more interesting and expands new worlds of possibility for your script.
So did the brothers succeed in telling a compelling story? Well, based on this draft I wouldn’t rank it among their best—but I liked it. Some people won’t. A lot of that comes down to how much you like the premise. But in terms of writing ability for this specific story, I can’t imagine anyone better suited to keep my attention through an hour and a half of wandering. Character and conflict can go a long way.
[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I Learned: Even if you have no coherent plot in the Hollywood sense, you can still keep the reader turning the pages by giving your protagonist simple goals and having him/her achieve them. It’s especially important if your protagonist’s main goal is something nebulous like “artistic success.” In a script like this, there’s absolutely no excuse for a scene where Llewyn just sits and mopes. No matter how dispossessed or ennui-filled your protagonists are, they better be trying to obtain something or we’re gonna get bored fast.