“Inside Llewyn Davis” ***** (out of 5)
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Adam Driver
Written and Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
If you haven’t seen a Coen Brothers movie at this point, shame on you. While not all of their films are equally entertaining, they are all perfectly unique, yet the same. If that doesn’t make sense, consider it for another moment. From “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski” to “Fargo” and “No Country For Old Men”, as one fellow amateur critic put it, you can always tell when you’re watching a Coen Brothers movie, despite how different they may play. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is in the same vein, yet still manages to stand alone as a unique tale of a man who’s either a self-absorbed jerk or a supremely unlucky soul. The film makes no judgments of its’ own, and through its’ quirks and memorable dialogue, it stands as a supremely enjoyable, if not melancholy masterpiece.
Llewyn Davis (Isaac) has an abundance of talent, evident from the opening scene as he performs a soulful folk scene. Unfortunately, he carries an abundance of arrogant negativity with him as well. After the opening number, bar owner Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella- Doogie Howser’s old buddy if you can recognize him) tells Llewyn that a friend wants to speak to him outside. This is no friend- the gruff man is angry about criticism Llewyn threw his wife’s way at an earlier time, and proceeds to beat Llewyn senseless. It’s a great tone-setter for the film, as we can sense Llewyn’s greatness with music and his propensity for poor social behavior in the same sequence.
That knack for paining others doesn’t stop there. Upon waking the following day, Llewyn manages to lock himself out of a friend’s apartment after mistakenly letting out the house tabby cat. Then he calls upon folk-singing ‘friends’ in Jean (Mulligan) and Jim (Timberlake) to stash the cat while he takes care of business. The problem? Jean is none too happy with Llewyn for reasons I won’t reveal, and then he lets the cat escape out of their window. The same day, he upsets his sister after a brief visit. See a pattern yet?
Llewyn just can’t get out of anyone’s way, including himself. He’s without a partner (who appears to have killed himself without reason), without a permanent home, without a competent career plan or agent, and without a confidant. He has plenty of ‘acquaintances’, whom he calls upon to provide him with a couch to sleep on, but even they have become disillusioned with him. There are those that will see this film and feel sorry for Llewyn, and others who will feel he deserves what he gets. It’s hard to argue with either point of view, but here’s an alternate thought- he seems to meet everyone on their worst day. Could it be that Llewyn is just trapped in a vicious circle of self-doubt and bad timing, made worse by how callous he’s forced to become with everyone’s negativity towards him? I got the impression that the character means well, in all honesty- he’s just locked into a good run of bad luck.
I’ll try to illustrate my theory by describing a series of scenes in the latter half of the film. Llewyn has decided to make his own luck by hitching a ride to Chicago, whereupon he’ll meet Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), producer extraordinaire, who will realize his talent and make him a star. His companions for the trip are Roland Turner (Goodman) and Johnny Five (Hedlund), two more eccentric people Llewyn tangles with, and another cat. Llewyn ends up having to take the last leg of the trip on his own, even leaving the cat behind (it’s just another being he’ll let down, right?). Upon arrival in Chicago, it’s clear that despite the conditions he’s in, Llewyn is optimistic; he may not trust himself, but he trusts his talent. He meets Grossman, plays for him- and Bud isn’t interested. It’s not that Llewyn isn’t talented, which is clear, but as the man says, it won’t sell. I believe the film shows its’ soul in this scene. Llewyn croons with a purpose here, his entire career and life leading up to that moment, but that moment has already passed him by. It’s heartbreaking to watch, as Llewyn finally get his opportunity but cannot seize it. I loved how the camera slowly zoomed in on him while he played. It was as if we could, for that moment, dare I say, see ‘inside Llewyn Davis’.
Very few filmmakers are able to squeeze so much out of what might seem so simple, but the Coens are the masters. This is a flawless film for what it is- a multi-layered character study. On the surface, “Inside Llewyn Davis” may seem like a basic, quirky story about a few days in the life of a jerk. Digging deeper brings forth a different result- a portrayal of a man who’s been calloused by bad luck and what’s projected on to him by others. The cycle of unfortunate luck and choices for Llewyn just goes on and on, encapsulated by the final scene of the film. It’s a fitting ending for one of the best films of 2013, and we’re left to wonder if Llewyn will ever catch a break.
*Note- As before with the Coen’s “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, T. Bone Burnett is responsible for the music in the film. Once again, it’s a re-created piece of Americana that’s lost upon most of us, as it was in the early 1960’s before the arrival of Bob Dylan. My suggestion is to download or purchase the soundtrack to this film, spend some time with the music, and let your ears bathe in the soul of it.