The Coens for Lent – Inside Llewyn Davis

The seventeenth of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]

“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

Or maybe it’s just life?

Inside Llewyn Davis, the second of two perfect films the Coens have made in this writer’s estimation, is playfully obvious with its metaphors. If you wonder why the movie has the same scene at the beginning and end despite being a seemingly chronological story, Carey Mulligan’s Jean will just tell you: “You don’t want to go anywhere, and that’s why the same shit’s going to keep happening to you, because you want it to.” If you wonder what the cat symbolizes, a secretary on the other end of a phone line will tell you. As Llewyn tries to relay that he has the Gorfeins’ cat, the secretary mishears and repeats back, “Llewyn… is… the cat.”

At the same time, the repeating scene at the beginning and end don’t make a lot of sense on the surface. At the beginning it appears to launch the narrative, and also be the culmination of the journey. We are not led to believe that the event has happened twice. It like Llewyn is caught in a time-loop. Or more to the point, Llewyn is caught in a song with a repeating refrain. T Bone Burnett, in a Criterion behind-the-scenes extra, explains that much like a folk song with a repeating chorus, you understand it in a way you didn’t when you first saw it. I would argue that Llewyn himself has made some progress, however small, even as his circumstances repeat.

It’s Maundy Thursday, the day of the great betrayal. Judas, who we know to be a zealot, a violent-revolutionary who hopes Jesus is going to lead the people against the Romans, will instead sell him out for silver. Like Llewyn, Judas sabotages his own cause because he needs it to happen his way. In both cases, newness is on the way. As Llewyn gets beat up in the alley, Bob Dylan takes the stage to revolutionize folk music. And Jesus is inaugurating a new reign of God in the midst of the old world. Neither Llewyn nor Judas have enough imagination or patience to participate in the newness around the corner.

In the midst of Holy Week, approaching the end of Lent, exiting the wilderness, we wonder whether it will truly end, or if we’re doomed to live in an endless cycle of despair. What can break us out of this? For every step forward we make, we sabotage ourselves two steps back. The wilderness follows us home. It’s going to take something cataclysmic, revelatory, apocalyptic to break us free. On Maundy Thursday, as we betray our own causes, we hope that Jesus is powerful enough to raise what’s dead in each of us.  

[See all entries in “The Coens for Lent” series]

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