Published on January 17th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Inside Llewyn Davis
After hearing so many good things about The Coen Brothers’ new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, and then watching it get a harsh Oscar Best Picture nomination snub, I was even more interested to see it. It spins the tale of folk singer Llewyn Davis, a mainstay on the scene in the Village in the 60s (while Davis is a fictional character, he’s based in large part on actual folk singer, the Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk). Davis has recently gone solo after his singing partner committed suicide, but he just can’t seem to get it together. He’s a rolling stone, a couch surfing vagabond with no fixed address, smart enough to know he’s an unreliable cad, but so self-destructive that he is almost fastened to his destiny, powerless to do anything except look forlorn or confused when his actions come back to bite him in the ass.
“Don’t you think about the future?” Carey Mulligan’s character Jean says angrily.
“The future?” Davis replies smugly. “You mean, like, flying cars? Hotels on the moon? Tang?”
Oscar Isaac (Standard in Nicolas Winding Renf’s Drive) embodies Davis well, in that we probably shouldn’t favour his bad habits, yet there is a sad-eyed looseness to the troubadour that you can’t help empathizing with. While some of his woes stem from his shitty personality, it is a personality born of frustration. Whether heroically or stubbornly, he won’t compromise his art, amidst managers and impresarios telling him that he needs to get into a more accessible vocal group (perhaps one with excellent sweaters?). As the music scene grows more gimmicky, Davis rails against it, sometimes silently and through self-sabotage, sometimes by literally calling out those on stage from the other side of the room. The movie reminded me a lot of A Serious Man, in that what can go wrong will, though Davis brings a bit more of it on himself than Michael Stuhlberg’s poor Larry Gopnik did.
The music is a big part of the film, as you’d expect, and Isaac, Cary Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver performed almost all of the songs themselves. They range from wonderful murder ballads and folk standards to send ups of sillier moments in music history, like the novelty song, ‘Please Mr. Kennedy.’ As with O Brother Where Art Thou, which had a very successful soundtrack, T-Bone Burnett is on board as music producer (along with The Coens and (ewwww, gross) Marcus Mumford).
The washed out look of the film matches Llewyn Davis’ hopeless outlook, as he trudges through the gloomy winter streets of New York and Chicago. It’s as oppressive as it is beautiful; it reflects the ice forming on Davis’ heart. He’s not only lost a friend, but the worry hides behind his eyes, that he may have lost the brightest part of himself.
And also, like Davis, the narrative wanders. At one point, he drives a car through the cold night and has the chance to turn off at Akron to confront part of his past that has been planted earlier in the story. But the Coens tease the audience and subvert the form. In most other movies, he’d travel down that road and take the plot passenger with him to that expected place in the story. Llewyn Davis will not pander thusly. He keeps driving through the night, taking the narrative with him and leaving the conventional to thumb a lift.
Ridley Scott’s The Counselor tried to do this, subvert genre conventions, but ended up with nothing more than a pretty mess (like a lot of Ridley Scott movies). Variety critic Scott Foundas argued that The Counselor was multiplex daring and that the rest of us drooling morons just weren’t equipped to understand. Unlike most audiences and professional critics, Foundas was one of the few chosen ones that understand abstraction and doesn’t need every last detail “spoon fed” to him. Look, I got it, Foundas. I just thought it was a fucking trainwreck. Just because you attempt something daring, doesn’t mean it works. Conversely, The Coens craft narrative abstractness into Inside Llewyn Davis in clever and graceful ways, so that they’re adding to the character and the film experience itself; the entire construction of the movie is a metaphor for Davis. He’s dark and difficult, he rambles along, and he doesn’t do what you want him to do — but he’s also beautiful and graceful.
Will it leave some cold? Perhaps, as it seemed to do with Academy members. Will I come back to this movie again and again the way I have with Blood Simple, O’ Brother, No Country for Old Men, or The Big Lebowski, among others? Probably only when I’m in a certain mood. And maybe this is why it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t the best Coen Brothers movie, nor is it the best movie this year, but it has a quiet maturity and a melancholic comedy that the brothers have been finding in their career as of late, and it’s utterly watchable.