Sunday, July 6, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

Directed by The Coen Brothers.
2013. Rated R, 104 minutes.
Oscar Isaac
Carey Mulligan
Justin Timberlake
John Goodman
Ethan Phillips
Robin Bartlett
Max Casella
Jerry Grayson
Jeanine Serralles
Adam Driver
Garrett Hedlund
F. Murray Abraham

It's 1961 in Greenwich Village, New York. Llewyn Davis (Isaac) is a down-on-his-luck folk singer. He has an album out that no one is buying, plays gigs here and there in local dives to make a few bucks, and sleeps on the couch of one friend or another every night. One of those couches belongs to loving couple Jean (Mulligan) and Jim (Timberlake). Jean spews endless streams of vitriol at Llewyn and continuosly declares her undying hatred of him. However, there was at least a short while where she let her guard down because she's just discovered she's pregnant and there is a possibility that the baby is his. In addition to this problem, he's lost the cat belonging to the Gorfeins (Phillips and Bartlett), another couple who lets him crash at their place from time to time. A rather interesting week ensues.

In true Coen Brothers fashion, we follow our hero on a series of misadventures as he continues to make a mess of his life. We get the sense he's been doing this for a good while. The fascinating part for us is trying to figure out whether or not he wants to fix it. Actually, that's not quite right. We're really trying to see how stubborn he is in trying to fix it his way before relenting and doing it the way others urge him. It's all a question of priorities and if Llewyn has them straight. Early on, shortly after Jean has told Llewyn she is pregnant, the two have a conversation discussing both the baby and the missing cat. By the end of it, Llewyn expresses more concern over the cat. Perhaps it's a defense mechanism kicking in after the verbal assault he suffers whenever Jean is within earshot. Maybe he is that far removed from reality that one situation is no more weighty than the other regardless of the consequences. This is what we're always trying to figure out with Llewyn. Eventually, we have to ask similar questions of Jean. As much as she hates Llewyn and proclaims her love for Jim, how is it possible the two ended up in bed together? What gives her the right to think that her decision making is any better than his? Nothing she does is above reproach. Are her tirades merely her own defense mechanism intended to disguise her true feelings?

The beauty of a Coen Brothers movie, and what makes them frustrating for some, is that even though they raise these questions they don't feel the need to explicitly answer them. They give us enough that we can argue about what we think those answers might be, but there really is no definitive right or wrong, just like in real life. In fact, this particular slice-of-life rings truer than most of the Coens' films because the situations Llewyn finds himself in are much more relatable than most of their other protagonists. He's a guy trying to make it as a musician and struggling badly. That's far more common than say, being chased around Texas by a relentless drug dealer wielding an oxygen tank, or a trio of escaped convicts becoming a renowned bluegrass band, or a pot-head trying to get money for a ruined rug from a millionaire he just happens to share the same name with. Don't get me wrong. Those are all great pictures, but not as grounded in reality as Inside Llewyn Davis.

Our star Oscar Isaac makes the whole thing work. That he's a guy determined to continue down the path he's on despite repeated failure is wholly believable. He sells us on the idea that no matter what, he knows better than you. He's going to do things his way and whatever happens happens. Because things aren't going so well with this method, there is an underlying anger to him that is consistently present. He only once berates someone. However, through Isaac's entire performance we get the sense that this is an angry, depressed little man. It seems his only joy comes from being on stage, but he can't get on enough of them to either satisfy his emotional need of them or to be able to afford a place to live. It also helps that he carries the musical performance aspect of his role really well.

Isaac isn't alone in giving us wonderful work, either. Mulligan is terrific speaking forcefully with every word exits her mouth. More than the words she says, the blunt look on her face while she does is what makes the character. The Gorfeins were played perfectly by Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett. Garrett Hedlund gives one of those performances that is quirky and great, but bound to be forgotten. Justin Timberlake gives a hard to judge performance. I don't hate him as an actor. In fact, I think he's usually not bad. Here, I didn't really like him most of the time. When he was performing music, it was a whole different story. Even here, you can see why he's become a pop music superstar. He has that little something extra that makes it impossible to take your eyes off him when he's working a song. Despite all of the stellar acting going on here, John Goodman steals the show as disabled, hard sleeping jazz musician Roland Turner. He is a vile person, often saying vile things, but he says them so eloquently it would be hard not to listen to him. It would be equally hard not to be pissed off at him. That's the magic of his character and Goodman pulls it off with ease.

When I first watched Inside Llewyn Davis, I wasn't quite sure how I felt about it. I mean I liked it, but I didn't know how much. I was a bit perturbed that the whole thing seemed to be just a set up for a cheap timeline trick which I won't spoil. I also had some thinking to be about that ending. I did the only logical thing I could and started writing this review. This helped me work through it, and recognize all the exquisite things going on, here. Coen Brothers films often have this effect on me. I see them and like them okay, but don't quite appreciate them until I spend some time putting some serious thought into what I just saw. Unlike most movies, theirs get better under scrutiny. This is no exception. Taken at face value, it's a movie you can easily forget. Once you start digging though, you start to unearth a bunch of treasures.


  1. Great review! I didn't care for this film at all, but I did enjoy this music. Reading this makes me want to go listen to 500 Miles right now. ha

    1. The Coens tend to be a bit polarizing so I can definitely understand not liking it. Great music, though.

  2. I enjoyed this one a lot as I see it as a man who has a lot of talent but he's his own worst enemy. Especially as he just fuck things up for some and such.

    1. He most certainly is his own worst enemy. The poor guy just can't seem to get out of his own way.

  3. I love your closing paragraph because that's exactly what I thought about Fargo, another Coen Brothers film. The more I read into it, the more I've grown to love it. I haven't seen Inside Llewyn Davis yet but I definitely will be soon now I've read your review.
    - Allie

    1. The Coens are definitely not afraid to make the viewer work. It generally makes for a more rewarding experience if you out the effort in. I highly recommend it if you are willing to dwell on it a bit.