Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

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Folk Singer Searching For A Platform

At certain points in time, from certain perspectives, the world can be a cold, dark place. Leave it to the Coen Brothers to use this general conceit as a starting point and thesis for Inside Llewyn Davis, their latest and beautifully melancholic depiction of the folk music landscape in 1961 Greenwich Village.

Navigating an intoxicating and gauzy-gray New York City is Llewyn Davis, given soul-searching force by Oscar Isaac, bundled in a beige coat and scruffy beard. He opens the film leaned over his guitar in the dusty spotlight of The Gaslight Café’s intimate stage, a frequented platform to strum poetry. He sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” and it pours out of him, its ethos switching from a rekindled ballad to a pitiable plea to his small audience. “If it never gets old and it’s not new, it’s a folk song,” he suggests afterward, a definition he fears has bled into his own life.

That song is by Dave Van Ronk, the folk singer that Joel and Ethan Coen use as a template for Llewyn Davis, a man foraging for relevance before the country’s imminent cultural revolution takes flight. The desolate folk music calm before the drug-laced, harmonica storm subtly becomes the existential backdrop. Llewyn is alone, couch surfing on people’s good graces. He keeps holding out but his hope wanes in the wintry air, surviving day-to-day, moment-to-moment.

And that is the beauty of this tenderly crafted work, whose color and music, executive-produced by T Bone Burnett, finds thematic overlap. Llewyn’s philosophy of life has no destination, grounded by his instrumentally kindred spirit and by economic necessity. We briefly step into his world for just a week but it’s constantly going. He’s commuting from the luxurious Upper West Side apartment of a hospitable Columbia professor (Ethan Phillips) to various West Village walk-ups, to his sister’s Queens residence. He’s also carrying or chasing the professor’s orange cat that escaped after spending the night, a token of comedy and perhaps a deeply rooted metaphor.

It’s hard not to suspect something deeper in the frisky feline from the brother writer/directors. Llewyn clutches it like a child, the only responsibility he seems capable of on his frequent subway odyssey. The Coens tackled Homer in O Brother Where Art Thou and this time around they retain its foggy atmosphere amidst a more personal journey. Instead of sirens and a Cyclops, failed records and empty pockets. Instead of perilously returning home, Llewyn’s trying to find one.

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We don’t know Llewyn’s background except when it speaks through his crisply sullen voice and through the antagonistic people to whom he attaches. One of those hosts is Jean (a pale, brunette Carrie Mulligan), a former indiscriminate lover, now married and musical partner to Jim (Justin Timberlake). She learns she’s pregnant and sadly suspicious that Llewyn is the father, which turns her soothing duet voice into seething spats of vitriol. “You’re like King Midas’s idiot brother,” an insult so brilliantly deployed and honestly told.

Llewyn doesn’t earn your sympathy well. He’s particularly flippant and dismissive, and at one point disrupts a dinner party where he’s regrettably made a musical play toy. He’s also consequentially needy. Jim invites him to a recording session to add vocals to a delightfully clunky rendition of “Please Mr. Kennedy.” All you need to know is that Adam Driver (Girls), as another starving artist, adds some wonderful baritone sound effects. But Llewyn doesn’t recognize the song’s potential, and when he signs his contract, he opts out of earning royalties.

This is a peppier, silly song that turns Jim (and many others) into a victim of Llewyn’s elitist sarcasm, a self-righteousness that so frequently toggles between earning and losing its merits. Roland Turner, a jazzman played by John Goodman, later returns this arrogant favor, chauffeured to Chicago by Llewyn and his driver named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). Turner’s a back seat slob but denigrates the pre-Dylan, Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary folk scene as they roll into the dark Midwest.

There, Llewyn tracks down a music producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) in a last ditch effort to redeem the mileage left in himself. He performs alone in front of him, surrounded by the studio’s smoky mirage of hope. His voice is all that matters and it cuts the thick layer of fog in the room. The pause after the last chord connotes an optimism destroyed only by Grossman’s simple reply: “I don’t see a lot of money in this.”

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The deeply unsettling response is painful only because Llewyn is readily aware of that fact. He’s already living Grossman’s belief! The Coens seem to be suggesting the antithetical nature of the American Dream, the reality that was and is the never-ending struggle of turning creativity into commodity. Llewyn, still in the grieving process after his older partner (heard in the harmonically tingling voice of Marcus Mumford) committed suicide, must face this frustrating fact. He has the voice. He has the truth. He needs the elusive break.

“Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain,” Bob Dylan sang in “Not Dark Yet.” Llewyn, as some sort of comeuppance for his behavior, or by sheer bad luck, has fulfilled the latter half of that verse and propped up the former. But there is something so satisfying consuming this often sour and gloomy voyage. The talent is there and so is the yearning, seen in Isaac’s nervous eyes and heard in his soft song.

And it’s in song, in art in general, where our honesty and reservoir of feelings find a clearer pathway of expression. The Coen brothers write and film. Llewyn Davis sings. In a stall in a Chicago bathroom, he meditates on an existentially carved-out question “What are you doing?” He has no answer to this for his nagging sister or his war-veteran, ill father. He has no answer for himself. In his cold, dark world, he can only hope his songs allow him to keep searching for one.

4.5/5

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2 responses to “Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

  1. Great review Jake. This was a very different Coen Brothers flick by the fact in which it didn’t really seem to do much, nor did it really seem to have a pattern it continually followed. Instead, it sort of just went its own merry way, much like its lead character, and it works, believe it or not.

  2. Pingback: Critic’s Picks: Top Films of 2013 | Peanuts and Popcorn·

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