“Inside Llewyn Davis’
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Adam Driver, Max Casella, Robin Bartlett, Ethan Phillips, Stark Sands
“Can anything be both meaningful and aimless?” Joel and Ethan Coen ask in their latest film. Taking it from Llewyn Davis, the man and movie both, it appears so. But such is the nature of art. A masterpiece isn’t planned, nor is it something that can necessarily be blueprinted. Half the meaning of art is in the legwork itself; the getting there of it all. For within art as self-expression, there is no structure, no path towards inspiration, and no guarantee of success, even for your best work. And yet, to only give yourself half-heartedly to a craft that only stands a snowball’s chance in hell of finding an audience is self-defeating. Folk music, as we see here, isn’t just about singing songs, it’s the burden of searching for meaning, a modus operandi that looks a lot like vagrancy; an outré way of existing. Art is no hobby, Inside Llewyn Davis cries, it’s a lifestyle, and a tiring one at that.
As Llewyn Davis tries with fleeting enthusiasm to give his folk-sung artistry a last go around the Greenwich folk scene, he learns that art and commercialism could not be further polarized (the iPhone hadn’t been invented just yet). In an ironically staged twist of Coen Bros symmetry, this film, which is as far left of commercial as can be, is a piece of high art. As such, it’ll likely be shuffled away from the mainstream, bolstered only by Coen enthusiast’s enduring adoration, near-universal critical acclaim, and a dollop of love from the awards circuits. But though it’s reach may be limited, it is powerful. And as I’ve tried to preach in movie-related writings, it’s a film best served with a healthy serving of reflection, to be sought out by those who seek a deeper relationship with the films they watch.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a mood piece if there ever was any, rich with soulful folk ballads, colorful characters, and stripped of the usual framework that we call a story. As a microcosm of an era and a subculture, Davis, with his caustic demeanor, is the last man you would expect to lead a story. But for all his many faults, he lives and breathes folk music. His battered existence is the stuff straight from a hokum Bob Dylan lyric. What better subject for a film about a music genre that has by and large represented lost souls and losing investments than a gruff man fading from relevance before he was ever close to it in the first place?
Lumbering around aimless, Davis suffers from destiny lost. He’s recovering from the death of his best friend and musical partner and coming to the harsh acceptance that life has chewed him up, spit him out, and wants no further taste of him. But that’s hardly an excuse for such reprehensible behavior. Especially in front of the ladies!
Muses for Davis come and go with the change of the seasons and, through the power of suggestion and the here-again-there-again nature of Davis, we’re led to believe that he’s notorious for being loose with the ladies. Hell, he’s even slept with his best friend’s wife. But for all the poontang he reaps around town, he’s about as popular with any given lady after a sexual tryst as the music he sings. Doling out abortion money like its a hobby, Davis is the breed of sad, sorrowful ladies man who’s lifestyle is unbefitting of love. There’s only room for one love in his life and that’s his music, however mistreated it seems to be by the rest of the world.
When it comes to telling this tale of harmonious woe, the Coens turn the formula on its head. Rather than meeting a grumbling stick-in-the-mud who then spins his life around, when we meet Davis, he seems like a pretty decent guy. However, the more time we spent with him, the more we see him as an egocentric bastard, using up people’s goodwill and spitting them out like they were nothing to him. But it probably comes with the fact that he
Llewyn’s didactic approach to music has him looking down his nose at his peers – all of which, he has assured himself, are hacks or sell outs – and yet going nowhere fast for it. In such, he’s the Holden Caulfield of folk (and I guess that makes them “phonies”). But Davis is no troubled teenager. He’s a calloused man, hardened by disappointed, burdened with grief and buried in sorrow. The only thing that keeps him ticking is his geetar and his oh so lovely vocal cords. But each time Llewyn caws out a tune, coy as it may be, he is alive. Then, he retreats into something the broken man we know. As lively and rich as his soulful ballads are, he has become a shell. Without his tunes, I’m afraid there is nothing else left in this Oscar the Grouch.
After reading an early draft of the script, the Coens decided they needed more “tradition” in it and so we have Ulysses the cat. Davis’ moral compass is represented by this fat-faced, orange tabby cat who we meet in the opening shot of the film. Ulysses, just as much as Davis, guides us through this week-long saunter. As the film tracks the cat’s journey, we come to new conclusions about the mop-headed Llewyn, conclusions which will ultimately disappoint us and leave Davis heavy with shame.
Teeming with atmosphere, Inside Llewyn Davis captures the feel of grayness, that hard to swallow pill of depression. Even though it’s quite beautiful, Inside Llewyn Davis feels ugly. You can smell the stink of the smoke on your skin, and the nip of the chilly air when Davis walks into the New York streets sans proper winter wear. We shutter when he steps in a puddle, we empathize when he’s told, “I don’t see any money in it” as if that’s all that really matters.
Wet, downtrodden cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel helps to inform a New York that’s just as beat up as Davis himself. Even the most upbeat song of the film, sung to absolute perfection by Justin Timberlake‘s Jim and Adam Driver‘s Al Cody, is a plea against America’s fear of the uncertainty – the next battle against the Ruskos in a blossoming Cold War. That song, so aptly titled Please Mr. Kennedy is perfectly symbolic for the whole feature – and one of the most fun scens in all of 2013. It’s commercial crud and yet, it’s the one song you’ll be singing after the film wraps for days (Puh-puh-puh-please…). If only the whole movie had this upbeat sensibility, humor, and Driver’s timely baritone. But that’s a different movie entirely.
And yet there are a couple chunks to it that may as well be flown in from other films. The car scene with John Goodman seems like its from another movie entirely and, while propelling Llewyn to a climatic meeting with fate, seems a touch bloated for what we get out of it.
Blemishes and all, Inside Llewyn Davis is that rare movie that only the Coens could pull off. Backed by a killer soundtrack, a gloomy visual landscape, and a star-making performance from lead Oscar Isaac, it may be a film reserved for the minority but those lucky few sure will cherish it.