© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
The America we see in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen is a sort of alternate reality America that produces fresh (though slightly skewed) perspectives on real-world cultural history. Though they have worked on a few other projects, the Coens’ principal oeuvre consists of the nineteen feature films that they have written, directed, and produced in tandem—from Blood Simple (1984) to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018). Each of these films is set in a fictional version of a specific American time and place; in each case, however, the fictional version involved does not quite seem to coincide with the same time and place in the real America but is instead slightly offset from reality (and in ways that are distinct to the Coens). Building their films from bits and pieces extracted from American cultural history, the Coens have produced some of the most intricately crafted and intellectually sophisticated films of the past several decades, yet they have done so largely without sacrificing intelligibility or entertainment value. The Coens’ films are complex enough, however, that it does help to approach them armed with a few special insights and interpretive tools, which this volume will endeavor to supply.
One concept that is particularly helpful in understanding the Coens’ films is that of the alternate reality (or alternate history) narrative, in which the story takes place in a world that is very much like our own but differs from it in subtle ways, most commonly because some historical event in the past turned out differently than it did in our reality—such as the Germans winning World War II, which is the premise of any number of such narratives. Alternate history narratives require is a fairly detailed evocation of place and time, providing enough details gradually to make clear the fact that the reality of the story is not our own, a situation that also very nicely describes the films of the Coen Brothers. The Coens, as much as any filmmakers living or dead, set their films in specific and vividly realized places and times (often places that have figured prominently in American cultural history), from the Texas plains and honky-tonks of their first film, Blood Simple (1984), to the Hollywood hills and sound stages of Hail, Caesar! (2016). The films also tend to take place in clearly delineated time periods, very often in specific years and at crucial points in American history, as when Barton Fink (1991) is set in late 1941, just before and after the U.S. entry into World War II, or when A Serious Man (2009) is placed, by a variety of contextual clues, in 1967, the year of the Summer of Love. And yet, the Coens also sprinkle their films with small (and sometimes large) anachronisms and inconsistencies that announce, not that they are sloppy filmmakers, but that they are very meticulous filmmakers who want us to realize that the places and times in which their films occur do not, in fact, quite correspond to places and times in the real world. Jeffrey Adams is clearly correct when he notes that the Coens seem to see themselves as American filmmakers who are “dedicated to making films in and about the United States of America” (167). But it is equally clear that their version of the U.S. resides in a different reality (or realities) than our own. Their films take place, in short, in alternate realities.
I will discuss the way in which Inside Llewyn Davis occurs in an alternate reality below. For now, let me also note that the films of the Coens tend to represent various aspects of American history and American society not directly, but as mediated through culture. For example, music, a key ingredient in American film in general, is used more centrally and more effectively by the Coen Brothers than by most other filmmakers. Music is important in all of their films, though certainly more important in some than others. In two of the brothers’ films, music is particularly central, though for different reasons. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), music is the central tool used by the brothers to evoke the cultural context of the American South in the 1930s. Inside Llewyn Davis, on the other hand, is literally about music, featuring an eponymous protagonist who is struggling to make a name for himself amid the burgeoning folk revival of the early 1960s.
Among other things, the various kinds of American roots music featured in O Brother formed an important part of the background of the early-1960s folk revival that would come to play such a crucial role in American popular music in the coming decades. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the next Coen Brothers film to place music at its center instead of in the background—Inside Llewyn Davis—would focus on the folk revival. On the other hand, despite this direct musical link between the two films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis could not, in many ways, be more different. The first is flamboyant, over-the-top, rural, and avowedly comic; the second is muted, understated, urban, and existentially serious—almost to the point of gloominess, though it does have its occasional moments of low-key comedy. Gone in the later film is the typical ensemble cast of Coen regulars (though John Goodman does make a notable appearance), replaced instead by rising star Oscar Isaac and top-line box-office stars such as Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan. Most of the music in O Brother is performed by stars, or even legends, in the field, drifting into the film almost as if from another reality; most of the songs in Llewyn Davis are performed by the actors themselves, live in front of the camera, though none of them (including Timberlake) have credentials as folk singers. But the music is still the heart-and-soul of the film, and (if nothing else) the fact that the music of such different films could be so directly linked provides a reminder of just how varied such music can be.
Ian Nathan has made an interesting argument about why it was entirely appropriate for the Coens to make a film about folk music. Folk songs, he notes, tend to be reworked in each generation to meet the requirements of changing times. Meanwhile, the Coens do very much the same thing in their films, reworking “old films, books and whole genres” (161). Isaac plays the eponymous Davis, the son of a merchant seaman who has himself spent time at sea but is now trying to carve out a niche in the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961. Davis (Isaac does his own singing in the role) is a sort of generic figure, though he is based most directly on Brooklyn-born folk singer Dave Van Ronk. However, the gregarious and expansive Van Ronk differs from Davis in that he was certainly more politically engaged and more centrally located as a leader among the many folk artists who congregated in and around Greenwich Village at the time. Indeed, the film is anything but a biopic, and the Coens (not surprisingly) do not strive in the film for documentary realism of this important time and place in American cultural history. Instead, they seek to capture the essence of the music and to explore some of the cultural energies that informed it, including the Bohemian lifestyles of the participants. Timberlake and Mulligan play Jim and Jean Berkey, a husband-and-wife folk singing duo who are among those on whose couches Davis crashes, having no abode of his own. Jean has also had a dalliance with Davis that she bitterly regrets, now finding herself pregnant with a child that might have been fathered by Davis—much to her displeasure, to say the least.
One of the most direct nods to O Brother in Llewyn Davis resides in the fact that the latter film features a ginger cat named “Ulysses” that becomes lost and has to make its way back home, in the mode of Homer’s epic hero (or of the not-so-epic Ulysses Everett McGill). The role of the cat as a Ulysses figure is further emphasized when we see, within the film, a poster for the early-1960s film The Incredible Journey, about two dogs and a cat who must make their way through 250 miles of Canadian wilderness in order to get back to their home.The film poster not only reinforces the thematic role of the film’s cat as a Ulysses/Odysseus figure but also adds to the period feel of the film, even though it is slightly anachronistic, given that the film was released in 1963, two years after the action of the film. The cat also plays an important role in the film, as Davis is humanized via his attempts (inept and unsuccessful though they may be) to get it back home safely, mitigating to some extent his portrayal in much of the film as a self-centered asshole. Finally, the cat even cleverly links Llewyn Davis to its sources in the Greenwich Village folk scene. After all, the cover of Van Ronk’s 1964 album Inside Dave Van Ronk (the album that presumably gave Inside Llewyn Davis its title) shows the folk singer being shadowed by a cat. And, more famously, the cover of the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home shows Bob Dylan holding a somewhat alarmed-looking cat as well.
That the music of Llewyn Davis is directly connected with the music of O Brother is indicated in the former film in a number of ways—including the fact that T Bone Burnett helmed the music for both films. Perhaps the most direct indication of the complex connection between the music featured in the two films occurs in a sequence that occurs in the beginning of the film but is not entirely elucidated until it is repeated in expanded form at the end. Here, an Arkansas folk singer by the name of Elizabeth Hobby (played by real-world Ozark folk singer Nancy Blake) makes an appearance in the Gaslight Club, the real-life Greenwich Village club that is featured prominently in the film and where Davis frequently performs as well. Hobby, playing an autoharp, performs a down-home version of the old-time country classic “The Storms Are on the Ocean.” Hobby might have stepped straight out of O Brother, and she can be taken as a figure of authenticity in the film, as a performer who is still connected to the roots from which the folk revival has grown but away from which it has already begun to move.Davis is in a foul mood from the never-ending stream of setbacks he has suffered throughout the rest of the film, and he is an angry man to begin with, though the anger is often repressed. In any case, something about Hobby’s performance triggers a bout of viciousness; he heckles the woman mercilessly, though some of the bile is obvious self-directed. “I hate fuckin’ folk music!” he yells. Davis then pays for his outburst the next night when Hobby’s husband (played by Stephen Payne) calls him into the back alley behind the club and kicks the shit out of him, expressing his disgust at the New York city slickers and their corruption of his culture in their own cultural “cesspool.”
This scene thus dramatizes both the connection and the conflict between the authentic blues-country-folk traditions (especially in the South) and the new, much more commercialized folk music that was beginning to emanate from New York, reaching a zenith of inauthenticity in the heavily-produced pop-folk hits of the manufactured trio Peter, Paul, and Mary—who are obliquely referred to in Llewyn Davis when music producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) suggests that Davis might join a trio he is putting together. One of the models for Bud Grossman is real-world manager/producer Albert Grossman, who put together the real-world version of Peter, Paul, and Mary in 1961, but who is best known as the manager who helped Bob Dylan rise to fame. Dylan, of course, is a key figure here; as the greatest mainstream success to arise from the Greenwich-Village folk scene, he is also the key figure in the commercialization of folk music that Llewyn Davis implicitly (though half-heartedly) critiques.
That Dylan plays such a role can be seen in the closing of the film. After Davis finishes his set at the Gaslight Club (after which he will go out behind the club to be beaten up by Mr. Hobby), we see, from a distance, the scrawny, scruffy figure who follows him on the stage. We can’t see the figure well, but the voice we hear is unmistakably Dylan’s, in an originally unreleased studio recording of the song “Farewell,” which continues to play as the ending credits begin to roll. The song is very much what its title implies, as the singer bids farewell to his lover as he prepares to set out on a journey for parts unknown. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the end of the film, which leaves Davis’s future very much in doubt. It’s also the perfect followup to the two songs Davis has just played (both of which, incidentally, had been recorded back in the 1960s by Van Ronk). One of these is the traditional “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” about a man about to be hanged who doesn’t mind the hanging itself but just the idea of lying dead in his grave for so long afterward. In “Farewell,” Dylan similarly declares that he doesn’t mind the leaving itself, just the leaving behind of his loved one. Davis’s other song, “Fare Thee Well” (aka “Dink’s Song”) is even more directly linked with Dylan’s, as the title perhaps indicates. Indeed, “Dink’s Song” (first published in 1934 in a volume co-edited by Alan Lomax) was itself recorded by Dylan shortly before he wrote and recorded “Farewell,” suggesting a potential direct influence.
This sudden appearance by Dylan (the only “real” singer to figure in the film) further complicates the particularly complex relationship with reality that informs Llewyn Davis throughout. It complicates, in fact, the entire texture and meaning of the film. The simple interpretation would be that Dylan, about to become a big commercial star (and then soon to go electric, a move that some saw as a betrayal of his folk roots), represents the beginning of the end of the authentic folk revival that Davis and others have been pursuing in the film. Read this way, this last scene would seem to be a criticism of Dylan. But it is equally possible to see Dylan as a sort of alter ego of Davis throughout the film, making him a figure of the kind of success Davis might have had if he had only made a few better decisions and perhaps had a bit more integrity—and luck. One could even argue, in fact, that Davis is in many ways based more on Dylan than on Van Ronk, and that the apparent link to Van Ronk is just another bit of Coen chicanery.
In between the opening scene and the final scene (which are essentially the same scene), Davis stumbles through a gloomy winter landscape without an overcoat, a condition that pretty much sums up his existence. His former singing partner has committed suicide, and Davis’s first solo album isn’t selling. Davis’s one shot at commercial success comes when he joins Jim Berkey and a singer who calls himself Al Cody (Adam Driver) to record a novelty song (“Please Mr. Kennedy”) that promises to become a big hit—but Davis has to sign away his right to royalties in return for a quick payment of $200 to pay for Jean’s abortion. This missed opportunity seems typical of his entire existence, in keeping with the mood of loss that permeates the film, whose colors are mostly blues and grays, so muted that the film often feels like it is in black and white. Almost everyone is in a bad mood, and no one has the energy and exuberance of a Ulysses Everett McGill, the wacky protagonist of O Brother, Where Art Thou.
In most ways, Llewyn Davis comes very close to a realistic depiction of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s and, as such, seems less like it is set in an alternate reality than probably any other Coen Brothers film. Eileen Jones, however, has argued that the focus on characters (especially the title character) who are losers makes the film a sort of “alternate vision of America,” given that it focuses on failure in an era when prosperity and success reigned supreme. For Jones, “The Coens have made a movie about failure in an era when, the standard pop-histories tell us, nobody really failed. They continue to look at the struggle of those on the margins, at failure among bungling strivers with grandiose dreams.”
Moreover, even this film has its peculiar moments when it seems to veer off into another reality. For example, “Please Mr. Kennedy” is so ridiculous that one is tempted to see it as an intrusion of Coenesque whimsy into the generally realistic texture of the film. Indeed, the song received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song, with the Coens and Burnett listed as composers, along with Timberlake, Ed Rush, and George Cromarty. The problem is that Rush and Cromarty originally wrote and recorded (as “The Goldcoast Singers”) a version of the song back in 1961, making it appropriate to the period setting of Llewyn Davis, though making it questionable for categorization as a song original to the movie. What is perhaps even more interesting, though, is that the original song was an appeal to the new President Kennedy not to draft the singers into the military, with the ramp-up of U.S. forces in Vietnam just beginning. In Llewyn Davis, however, the song has been completely retooled as a plea not to conscript the singers into the space program and launch them into outer space. The change makes the song considerably stranger (and funnier), considering that this sort of conscription would clearly never happen in the first place. The result is one of the few points at which Llewyn Davis genuinely feels that it is taking place in an alternate reality. For one thing, the original “Please Mr. Kennedy” was not a huge hit: it is only within the alternate reality of the film that the song’s commercial success seems assured. More importantly, in this reality, Vietnam and other political issues do not even seem to exist, and the whole (extremely important) political dimension of the folk revival has been elided completely. The folk singers of the film do not seem all that devoted even to folk singing—at one point Llewyn tries (but fails, of course) to return to the sea, and all Jean really seems to want is to settle down in suburbia and raise kids with Jim. But they are definitely not devoted to employing their music in the interest of causes like peace and social justice, just as the Coens similarly do not see the furthering of such causes as the purpose of their art, wherever their personal sympathies might lie.
Another moment when the realism of Llewyn Davis seems to flicker involves the two-day road trip to Chicago that Davis takes in the middle of the film, hitching a ride there in return for sharing the driving and the cost of gas. Though this trip is based partly on a real trip once undertaken by Van Ronk, Llewyn’s companions on the trip—the strange and surly jazz man Roland Turner (Goodman) and Turner’s “valet,” one “Johnny Five” (Garrett Hedlund)—give the trip a sort of surreal quality. Turner and Johnny Five are like mythological figures who have stepped into the film from another reality—and from different cultural universes. The massive Turner is a literally larger-than-life figure who makes quite clear his contempt for folk music as an art form, clearly feeling that jazz is far superior. However, that he also apparently dabbles in the “black arts” and seems blanked out on heroin much of the time calls the reliability of his critical judgments into question. For his part, Johnny Five looks and talks like a refugee from the Beat poetry scene. He even reads aloud from the work of Beat poet Peter Orlovsky, a longtime lover and associate of Allen Ginsberg, the most famous of all the Beats. Meanwhile, in a bit of clever casting, the Coens found an actor who could give Johnny Five the Beat look by casting Hedlund, who just the year before had starred as Dean Moriarty (a fictionalized version of Beat writer Neal Cassady) in the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s classic 1957 Beat novel On the Road.
The mythological resonance of this trip is enhanced by the fact that Davis travels to Chicago in order to try to convince Grossman to represent him, his current management not exactly breaking down doors to further Davis’s career. Grossman manages a club called the “Gate of Horn,” which did, in fact, exist in Chicago between 1956 and 1971—and which had been managed by Albert Grossman in its earliest years. Davis gets nowhere when he meets with Grossman inside the club, but the club itself adds a mythological touch because its name comes from Greek mythology, in which the gates of horn and ivory are associated with true and false dreams, respectively. The name of the club thus suggests that performing there might help aspiring acts to fulfill their dreams as entertainers. Importantly, though, the best-known reference to these gates occurs in the Odyssey, linking Llewyn Davis to Homer (and to O Brother).
When we last see Johnny Five he is being carted roughly away by the police, while Turner is abandoned by Davis, unconscious in the back of the car, along with a stray cat that Davis had earlier picked up, mistakenly thinking it was Ulysses. Thus, while Davis does not exactly come off well for abandoning a stray animal and an unconscious man (it is possible that he later runs over and kills the cat, though that scene is left ambiguous), neither Beat poetry nor jazz comes off particularly well as a rival to folk music as a contender for the title of most authentic American cultural form. To make Turner and Johnny Five even less authentic, the former is actually based on bluesman “Doc” Pomus, rather than any jazzman, while Johnny Five is not really a poet but just an unsuccessful actor who reads other people’s poetry, rather than writing his own. The poetry, incidentally, sounds silly, as if the author thought he could reach some deep and shocking truths simply by using words like “fuck” and “asshole” in his poems.
Davis also meets denizens of other cultural worlds, including the academics who hang out in the apartment of the Gorfeins, Davis’s couch-holders of last resort and the owners of the cat Ulysses. Almost stereotypically, these academics seem effete, pretentious, and disengaged from reality, including one who is a musician and scholar of “early” music. They certainly seem no more authentic than Davis and his folkie colleagues or than Turner and Johnny Five. Llewyn Davis is, in fact, gently critical of the whole notion of authenticity, suspicious that the quest for authenticity that has driven so much American cultural production is simply a pretense, simply a style.
One useful explanatory referent here is again Sullivan’s Travels, in which (among other things) filmmaker John L. Sullivan feels that the serious social problem drama he hopes to make will be more authentic than the formulaic comedies on which he has hitherto built his career. In the end, however, Sullivan concludes that his comedies provide precisely the sort of artificial release from reality that his audiences need and desire. Llewyn Davis differs from all previous Coen Brothers films (with the possible exception of A Serious Man) in the extent to which it seems ambivalent about endorsing Sullivan’s conclusion. Despite its grimly humorous moments, Llewyn Davis is a serious film, indeed, one that has been compared, for example, to the work of Kafka in its exploration of the absurdities of the human condition. Jonathan Romney captures the film’s seriousness when he calls Llewyn Davis “a bleak but tender story with the direct, timeless honesty of a folk ballad,” ultimately “the most moving film the Coens have ever made, the compassion leavened by calm detachment and by the cruel irony directed at its hero” (20).
Llewyn Davis is not, however, too serious, and it makes no claims with regard to its own authenticity as a document of an important moment in American cultural history. The oddly dispassionate tone of the film (and its protagonist) is one sign of this lack of any such claim. Some of the film’s potentially most emotionally intense scenes come off, in fact, as darkly comic. Jean’s confrontation with Davis about her pregnancy might, for example, have been an emotionally powerful moment, but the strange mismatch in the scene between Jean’s overwrought emotion and Davis’s almost complete lack of emotion defuses the intensity and makes one simply start to wonder how many times she can call him an “asshole” in one scene. Similarly, potentially poignant scenes such as Davis’s visit with his father in a rest home are muted by the fact that they seem to have little emotional impact on Davis himself. We’ve seen Davis’s odd emotional emptiness before in the Coens’ work—in characters such as Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). A more telling referent, however, is probably Barton Fink, because Fink’s emptiness is both personal and political. Leftist screenwriters and socially committed folk singers are among the central figures of the political artist in American cultural history. Through their portrayal of the falsely political Fink and the apolitical Davis, the Coens make clear their belief, however problematic, that the true role of art is not to help us take arms against a sea of troubles, but simply to help us bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Adams, Jeffrey. The Cinema of the Coen Brothers: Hard-Boiled Entertainments. Wallflower Press, 2015.
Booker, M. Keith. The Coen Brothers’ America. Rowman and Littlefield, 2019.
Brian. “The Weather Is Against Me: Bob Dylan and the Coen Brothers.” Fellowship of the Screen (January 29, 2016). http://screenfellows.com/2016/01/the-weather-is-against-me-bob-dylan-and-the-coen-brothers/. Accessed May 26, 2018.
Jones, Eileen. “The Great American Losers.” Jacobin (December 6, 2013). https://www.jacobinmag.com/2013/12/the-great-american-losers/. Accessed May 29, 2018.
Lewit, Ido. “‘This Is Not Nothing’: Viewing the Coen Brothers through the Lens of Kafka.” In Mediamorphosis: Kafka and the Moving Image, ed. Shai Biderman and Ido Lewit. Wallflower Press, 2016, pp. 258–78.
Nathan, Ian. The Coen Brothers: The Iconic Filmmakers and Their Work. Aurum Press, 2017.
Romney, Jonathan. “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” Film Comment, November-December 2013, pp. 18–22.
 Adapted from my book The Coen Brothers’ America.
 There may be at least one other moment of potential dialogue with Dylan album covers in Llewyn Davis. In one scene, we see Davis trudging down a snow-covered street, drawing closed the light jacket that is clearly insufficient to protect him from the cold. The scene is highly reminiscent of the photo on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), perhaps the most famous of all of Dylan’s album covers. However, whereas Dylan walks arm-in-arm with girlfriend Suze Rotolo (in one of the central couples moments in American pop cultural history), Davis walks alone, emphasizing his existential loneliness.
 Llewyn Davis also includes a scene in which another singer joins Jim and Jean on stage at the Gaslight to constitute a trio that performs the traditional folk song “500 Miles,” which is best known in the version recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary and included on their bestselling self-titled debut album in 1962.
 Van Ronk had been briefly considered by Grossman to be a member of the trio that became Peter, Paul, and Mary, but his rough-hewn voice was judged unsuitable for such a commercial project.
 As with O Brother, however, the music changes midway through the credits, continuing with Van Ronk’s recording of “Green, Green Rocky Road,” a song of which Davis had played a brief excerpt earlier in the film, providing the most overt link between the music of Davis and that of Van Ronk, though Davis in fact plays several songs during the film that had once been recorded by Van Ronk.
 One blogger, “Brian,” has not only overtly declared that “Llewyn Davis is Bob Dylan” but has further suggested that the Coens have been “chasing the shadow” of Dylan throughout their careers.
 Ironically, this gesture turns out to be unnecessary, because Davis unknowingly already has a credit with the abortion doctor due to the cancellation of an earlier girlfriend’s abortion.
 Ironically, Ginsberg went on to become a devoted fan of Bob Dylan.
 It might be noted that “Johnny 5” is also the name of the loveable robot featured in the 1986 film Short Circuit; that robot is also treated roughly by the authorities, though it outsmarts them and escapes.
 Chopin appropriately plays in the background at the Gorfeins’ apartment. In fact, Llewyn Davis expands its coverage beyond American culture by including several snippets of classical music (by composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler, in addition to Chopin) in its score. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the bit of Mozart’s Requiem that plays in the beginning, which potentially carries atmospheric resonances, while also setting up the appearance later in the film of F. Murray Abraham, who had played Salieri in Amadeus (1984), a film that is a cousin to Llewyn Davis in many ways. In the world of folk music, for example, one could see Van Ronk as a sort of Amadeus to Dylan’s Mozart.
 Even the ultra-serious No Country for Old Men is essentially an entertainment-oriented genre film.
 See Lewit for an extensive exploration of the Kafkaesque elements of both Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man.