Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
December 23, 2013 § Leave a comment
(8/10) Llewyn Davis (Oscaar Isaac), the titular character of the often times enigmatic Coen Bros. latest quirky take on the dastardly nature of life, is a folk singer operating in New York city’s Greenwich Village district (or anywhere he can find a paying gig, really) in 1961. Davis is the surviving member of a folk duo that gained a tiny bit of traction versus the zero traction Llewyn is managing as a solo act. His late singing partner jumped off the George Washington bridge a little while before we meet Llewyn, who has recorded a solo album titled ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ and is in the process of trying to eek out a meager living doing what he loves, as opposed to just about anything else.
Llewyn survives by couch surfing, gigging at a few local bars, namely the Gaslight and otherwise searching tirelessly for a better opportunity without sacrificing his dream. The film takes places over a single five-day week in his life, but the events seem to encapsulate the general experience of his existence, giving us a keen understanding of the type of person show business tends to produce. He’s a truly starving artist, but it isn’t noble or fun, just frustrating as hell. He goes unappreciated by the closest thing he has to a girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) a member of another folk group, this one a trio headed up by Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) a guy who is more willing to take the commercial route for its monetary gains, much to the frustration and disgust of Llewyn. Jean allows Llewyn to crash at her place from time to time, though she’s technically dating and in love with Jim, who seems to never be around by whom she idealizes whereas Llewyn is plainly described by Jean in colorful terms as a failure. Of course, Jean still harbors attraction to Llewyn and through her vitriol expresses a twisted affection for the man. Such is everybody’s reaction to Llewyn in the movie: Twisted affection.
Deep down they all clearly care about Llewyn, recognize he’s basically a decent guy, but they recognize him as the one to keep at arm’s length, lest his own misfortune and middling talent rub off too heavily on them. In this sense, nobody else but the titular character appears for more than a few minutes or a few brief scenes. The closest thing to a consistent supporting player is a series of similar looking orange cats Llewyn manages to find himself caring for on his meandering journey towards a living wage in his preferred field. Llewyn travels far and wide, making it financially by the skin of his teeth, only to encounter endless frustrations. Not too unlike the Biblical Job, a frequent allegorical reference by the Coens.
More so than in any other film in their wheelhouse before this, particularly the now iconic No Country For Old Men, the Coens revel in the parts of the story we never get to witness, but only hear about in passing. Llewyn is a busy man with a storied history that is never fully addressed and yet for any other filmmaker, putting these asides front and center would unquestionably be the necessary thing to do. It’s like the old adage that if a gun is being heavily featured, it has to go off at some point before the movie ends. Yet, the Coens present us with multiple metaphorical guns, which never even get loaded, let alone fired. Perhaps this makes their quirky stories a bit more realistic in their own way.
Calling Isaac’s portrayal of Llewyn Davis a tour de force would be, again, expected, but inaccurate to the Coens’ twist on the usual. Isaac, if anything, displays a tour de neutral, trudging through the film as a desperate man seemingly on the verge of exhaustion from how unlucky he is despite what he feels are his best and most genuine efforts. Isaac perfectly captures this hopeful, sardonic melancholy with a thick and fast New Yawkish accent (curiously the only character in the film with such a voice) that lends an tough and touching gravitas to the experience.
It could be viewed as frustrating for the typical filmgoer, who might be disappointed by the advertising playing up characters that barely register in the story, like Timberlake’s Berkey; John Goodman’s arrogant jazz musician; Garrett Hedlund’s mysterious chain smoking, monosyllabic road tripper and for the all around morose nature of the story where there is no reprieve. But that is life, isn’t it? Reprieves often feel convenient, but that’s only because the majority of life is difficult and inconvenient by default. Llewyn only knows inconvenience and we must endure with him.
The music is beautiful, the performances are all wonderful, the story entertaining, the Coens’ signature style identifiable. Llewyn Davis’ life might certainly be a disappointment, but the filmic version of it is a triumph.