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Non-Review Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is great examination of a singer drifting through American music scene in the sixties, starting in Greenwich before embarking on a cross-country tour and then ending up right back where he started.

One of the nicer cinematic tricks employed by the Coen Brothers is a delightful sense of deja vu at the end of the movie. There’s a step backwards in time towards the start of the film, but also a sense that it’s so subtle you might be forgiven for missing it. After all, it doesn’t matter too much. The eponymous Llewyn Davis is an artist caught in a particular groove, stuck on repeat; despite his protestations to the contrary, he is a performing monkey who ultimately only knows one or two numbers that seem to resonate with the audience.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a melancholy examination of personal and professional failure, delivered in the Coens’ trademark tragicomic style. There’s a sense that the world itself has a cruel sense of humour, structuring a joke at the expense of Llewyn. The film doesn’t rank among the Coen Brothers’ best work, and it’s certainly not an instant classic, feeling too disconnected and occasionally too cynical to rank with with the best of their output. At the same time, a middle-tier Coen Brothers’ film is still well worth a look.

Sing when you're winning... ... or when you're not...

Sing when you’re winning…
… or when you’re not…

In many ways, Inside Llewyn Davis‘s closest relation in the Coen canon is the divisive O Brother, Where Art Thou? The superficial similarities are obvious. Both are movies that seem to exist primarily as accompaniment to moving and heart-rending soundtracks, stories the fully capitalise on the union of sound and vision in cinema. Both feature a flawed protagonist on a personal journey, encountering all manner of strange folk on their adventures, including a scene-stealing John Goodman. Both even tease the possibility of family reunion on their travels.

The difference, of course, is that Everett McGill’s story is more optimistic. As flawed as George Clooney’s escaped convict might be, it’s hard not to root for the guy – and there’s a sense that the universe is somewhat sympathetic to McGill’s plight. He’ll suffer, but he seems to have a reasonable chance of earning what he desires. In contrast, the universe seems to have little time for Llewyn Davis, with much of the movie playing as an exceptionally bleak joke at Llewyn’s expense.

A gas old time...

A gas old time…

This would seem particularly harsh or cruel, if Llewyn were a likeable character on his own merits. Oh, he can sing. He has artistic vision. He has a nice sense of humour and he seems like a smart guy. There are points when he is downright charming. He’s also sinister, calculating, manipulative, selfish and cruel. “Your uncle is a bad man,” he assures his nephew at one point, in a scene that might feel heartbreaking if we’d hadn’t just reached the same conclusion ourselves. Sure, the world Llewyn inhabits is populated by those sorts of self-centred and manipulative individuals, but that doesn’t make Llewyn an especially likeable character.

Which is the delicate line that Inside Llewyn Davis has to walk. If Llewyn were likeable, the cruelty of the universe would seem unbearable. At the same time, the world seems so harsh and uncaring that it’s hard not be a little sympathetic toward Llewyn, even as he harasses friends for money, lounges around on their couches, yells at them over dinner and heckles innocent by-standers at folk clubs.

Cat's in the cradle...

Cat’s in the cradle…

That’s a delicate balance to maintain, and the Coen Brothers do a spectacular job. We dislike Llewyn just enough that his plight doesn’t seem like malicious torture, and his adventure is just harsh enough that we wind up feeling sorry for the poor guy, even if he is ultimately responsible for most of his own suffering. The Coen Brothers manage to keep the balance going just right, and Oscar Isaac is suitably impressive in the lead role.

At the same time, this is also the movie’s biggest problem. It becomes numbing after a while, once it becomes clear how ineffective Llewyn is and how cynical the world around him can be. As each attempt at escaping his cycle of despair fails, leaving Llewyn even worse off than when he began, it’s hard to get too invested. Like Llewyn himself, the audience learns to stop fighting and to just accept that nothing is actually going to change. This realisation, as inevitable as it might be, robs the film of a lot of the impact it might otherwise have. It’s hard to care if we’ve figured out that caring is pointless.

Kind and gentle folk...

Kind and gentle folk…

Still, Inside Llewyn Davis has moments of incredible power and poignancy. Wandering and meandering much like it’s lead character, the movie is strongest when Llewyn’s journey is explicitly circular. Embarking on a cross-country road trip with a bitter old jazz musician and an aloof younger singer of few words, Llewyn eventually winds up back where he started – no better or wiser for his journey.

Indeed, Inside Llewyn Davis works best when it ventures into the realm of pure metaphor. Llewyn’s recurring run-ins with various red house cats over the course of the film allow a consistent thematic through-line for the film, feeling like suitable subject matter for one of his folk songs. The shots of Llewyn driving through the snow down a darkened highway can’t help but evoke Kerouac’s Mad Road, a touchstone of the beat generation of which Inside Llewyn Davis skirts the edge.

Llewyn's waiting for his window of opportunity...

Llewyn’s waiting for his window of opportunity…

As ever, the Coen Brothers have assembled a pretty phenomenal cast for the film, with everybody well-tailored to their roles. Although Goodman is the film’s stand-out supporting performer, Justin Timberlake is used as well by the Coen Brothers as he was by David Fincher, allowing his natural showiness to bleed into the role. Oscar Isaac does great work with the lead character, helping to take some of the rough edge off Davis, and allowing the audience to feel sorry for the character, despite the fact that he brings so much of his suffering upon himself.

That said, the star of Inside Llewyn Davis is the wonderful soundtrack. It’s an absolutely fantastic collection of music that adequately captures the spectrum of music of the era, from folk ballads to homespun melodies, to Irish shanties, to novelty hits like Please, Mr. Kennedy. That last song might be the stand-out ear worm of the film – an obvious and affectionate homage to that most iconic of space-age novelty tunes Space Oddity, hitting on the same anxieties and uncertainties.

Perfect harmony?

Perfect harmony?

Inside Llewyn Davis is not the Coen Brothers’ strongest film. It’s a solidly mid-tier work from the duo. However, given that the pair are among the best filmmkaers working in the business today, that makes Inside Llewyn Davis absolutely fascinating viewing.

5 Responses

  1. Good review Darren. I agree with you. For some odd reason, I didn’t quite love this as much when I initially saw it. However, time went on and I began to think more and more about it and realized that it was something very special. Not just because of what Isaac does in the lead role (although he is quite amazing), it’s more because the Coens try something rather new that they haven’t really played with before, but it still seems like any other movie that they’d make. Maybe I’m not making much sense, but the fact of the matter lies is that this flick stayed in my mind, long, long after I saw it.

    • Yep. Technically, it’s fantastic. Well structured, well shot, the soundtrack is amazing, the imagery is enduring. However, I found myself distanced from the film. Not so much because Llewyn was unlikeable, but rather because he wasn’t likeable enough to make want to care, knowing exactly what the film was going to do to him. Knowing that this wasn’t going to end happily – as is obvious from the start – it’s very easy to sit impassively on the outside and harder to draw yourself into Llewyn’s story, if that makes sense.

  2. Good review. You liked it to, of course, but I think I like it even more than you. I think this might be the most intimate the Coens have ever been, and there was never a point at which I found Llewyn’s lack of charisma problematic. I didn’t like him, but I did understand him, and I did care about him.

    • I agree. Llewyn doesn’t have to be likeable or anything crazy like that.

      However, I just found myself a bit cynical about the crappy things happening to Llewyn, if that makes sense. I understood him, and I think he was a well-formed and well-played character, but I think I suspected that the movie was going to treat him as a punching bag, so his stand-off-ishness made it a bit harder to attach myself to him, knowing that. If any of that makes sense.

      • It does. I guess the difference is that I didn’t think the movie treated him as a punching bag, really (the scene wherein his driver s arrested excepted, I suppose). He mostly punched himself, so the sequence of events always felt believable to me.

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