It's Hard to Get Inside Llewyn Davis, but It's Worthwhile
- Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2013 6 Dec
DVD Release Date: March 11, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: December 6, 2013 limited; expands through December
Rating: R (forstrong language including some sexual references, and drug references)
Run Time: 105 min
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham, Stark Sands
We're used to seeing stories about dreams coming true. Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of one that doesn't.
A signature Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis melds sensibilities from far ends of their idiosyncratic spectrum. Combining the music-driven travails of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (one of their most popular efforts) with the existential struggle of A Serious Man (one of their least popular), this folk tale of folk music is highly-accessible in some strokes and near-impenetrable in others. It entertains both as dark comedy and default musical, but if you don’t empathize with the title character’s discontent or the film's palpable melancholy, it may leave you cold. But if you do it may move you, even deeply.
From the burgeoning Beat Generation of New York's Greenwich Village in the early 60s, folk music began to emerge, as did its legends, Bob Dylan most notably. But many lacked the necessary talent, while others (despite their best efforts) were never blessed with the alchemy of a breakthrough.
Title character Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, The Nativity Story) is (very) loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, one of those talented singer-songwriters that mostly fell through the cracks. Llewyn bares his soul through lyric and music but, despite having an album produced - from which the film derives its title - he fails to gain any traction beyond working gig-to-gig. As one person coldly tells him: "I don't see any money here."
No one appreciates Llewyn's gift - probably because he’s a hard person to appreciate. No sooner do we see him croon a poignant tune to open the film than he gets beat up in an alley, and then cursed out by one of his close friends whose help and generosity he's abused for too long (along with her heart).
Llewyn is a drifter, from one friend's couch to the next. He's a nomad and loner, not by carefree spirit but as the result of irresponsibility. Llweyn is a hard worker, a man of sincere intent – but too much of a music snob to build a career (or a life). His music nerd elitism boarders on obnoxious. Where most would see wisdom he sees compromise, and his angst for romantic perfectionism is the root of his unhappiness.
Like O Brother Where Art Thou?, which paralleled Homer's The Odyssey, Inside Llewyn Davis ends up being an odyssey of its own. There isn't a narrative or character arc. Rather, it's a series of randomly connected events that stumble into each other, as if to emphasize the very randomness of both life and success (or lack thereof). Llewyn remains stagnant throughout, not very different at the end than when we first meet him. But his arrested development is the point as the Coens explore what a life fueled by passion but completely stunted in growth looks like, and feels like.
Along Llewyn's journey we meet a variety of characters, from fellow musicians to supportive friends to others that briefly enter and exit. On the surface, each plays like broad one-dimensional archetypes who burden the already put-upon Llewyn, whether by their cluelessness, indifference, volatility, or sheer innocence. Despite Llewyn's unlikable traits, Isaac makes him a sympathetic figure through the exasperation felt in each exchange with these simplistic people, as well as in every rejection, turn of bad luck, or defeat.
The Coens use those broad supporting types not just for humor but to intentionally deceive us - just as Llewyn deceives himself - into thinking that Llewyn is somehow a victim of callousness and circumstance. The paradox here: everyone else may seem like caricatures, but it's really Llewyn who's the simpleton. As the apparent randomness begins to reveal itself as a collective whole, so too does the disposition of Llewyn that karmically invites hardship.
This is symbolized in the form of a cat that weaves its own presence throughout the story, serving as a metaphoric through-line, incarnating the very transitory nature of Llewyn's ambitions – temperamental, elusive, always escaping his grasp. However mysterious the cat's purpose may seem as the film unfolds, its allegoric objective is made clear when its very telling name is finally spoken.
With the film lacking a familiar plot structure, the songs become the connective tissue, each playing out in full numbers rather than snippets or chorus highlights. The soundtrack – a mix of traditional and original, all produced by O Brother’s Grammy winner T Bone Burnett – is a beautiful expression of this acoustic Golden Age, and also includes the hilarious "Please Mr. Kennedy" that epitomizes the era's example of a cheesy sellout. These full-length performances not only craft the film's tone (along with the cinematography's soft nostalgic glow) but psychological and relational commentary is made through how they're shot and cut. We don’t just get a feel for the period through the music, we understand the people who formed it.
The supporting cast – from John Goodman (Argo) to Justin Timberlake (In Time), and highlighted by the profane fury of Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby) – is filled with the type of quirky, oddball characters you’ve come to expect from a Coen ensemble. Still, this is Oscar Isaac's showcase. He lacks the histrionics and heart-grabbing sentimentality usually required to grab the attention of Oscar voters, but Isaac completely embodies the frustration of Llweyn's ephemeral existence while also displaying a credible and impressive musical talent. It's a career-making performance.
For most of the film's episodic meanderings, it appears the Coens' point is to mock the comic and tragic folly of ambition, of life's cold indifference. Of how no matter how hard you try, there’s always somebody better just waiting to follow you up and steal your glory. But through the pointed dialogue of its clever bookend, that perception shifts. The sucker punch that drops you to the ground, and the kick to the gut that follows leaving you in the gutter, may seem to be another one of Fate's cruel blows… but if you listen closely enough, you'll discover that it's a fate of your own making.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: People smoke cigarettes. Beer and wine is consumed; a man become drunk, angry, and rude. A character OD’s on an illicit drug, in a bathroom stall. References to drug use.
- Language/Profanity: Profanity throughout, with the F-word and S-word being common. Five uses of the Lord’s name in vain, three A-words, and a B-word.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Conversations involving sexual topics, including condom use, having an abortion, and discussions of sexual relationships that have occured. But no actual sexual content, other than embracing and kissing. A reference to homosexuality.
- Violence/Other: A man is beat up in an alley, punched and kicked. Other non-graphic violence. A man soils himself.
Publication date: December 6, 2013
Jeff Huston is a writer/director/editor for Steelehouse Productions, a film & video production company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also publishes a movie blog that can be found at icantunseethatmovie.com, and is a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. In 2015, his short film Pink Shorts was a finalist in HBO's Project Greenlight competition, and was one of six winners in that show's online "Greenie Awards."