“Inside Llewyn Davis” Review

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Spoiler Warning: I don’t consider Inside Llewyn Davis to be a movie one can spoil in any grand way, it doesn’t rely on plot all too much, be warned, I discuss much of the film with little regard to whether or not you’ve seen it.

Full confession: I know next to nothing about the folk-revival movement of the 1960s. For more information on that you should talk to Erik Gravel.

Fuller confession: I generally do not enjoy the work of the Coen Brothers.

Why, then, did Inside Llewyn Davis seem to be beckoning me into the theater? Maybe it was the soundtrack, exquisitely produced by someone the gall to be named T Bone Burnett (with a little help from Marcus Mumford). Maybe it was the cat. Or maybe I’m just maturing as a film viewer. Whatever it was, I left the theater in a small state of awe.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a lyrical, elliptical, melancholic, tragic film. To borrow a phrase from Film Crit Hulk, it is achingly human.

The story spans one week of folk singer Llewyn Davis’s unanchored life as he drifts from couch to gig to couch in an almost masochistic cycle. Davis is a musician with talent, but bereft of his partner, Mikey, he is destined to go nowhere. You see, Mikey threw himself off the George Washington Bridge, for no reason that Davis can see. This loss, perhaps he sees it as a betrayal, has untethered Davis from reality. His life is aimless. His search for success is unfocused. And anytime he comes close to a break his unwillingness to compromise his artistic integrity intervenes.

Inside Llewyn Davis invokes the freewheeling narrative of Ulysses as he wanders New York City. He drifts from the Upper West Side, to Greenwich Village, to Queens, and back. His journey even includes a stop in Chicago for good measure. The film renders New York of the ’60s with small, but thorough, details that lend texture to the loose narrative. Davis wanders with unarticulated motives, but nonetheless his desires and his struggle are clearly demonstrated. The film, on one layer, is about that ill-defined search for success as an artist while retaining the right to call oneself an artist. On another layer, it’s about grief and Davis’s inability to come to terms with his own. This non-plot of a plot would feel unfocused and meandering in less capable hands. While it is episodic, Inside Llewyn Davis is cohesive.

As I watched Oscar Isaac inhabit the life of Llewyn Davis, I empathized with him; I saw the tiniest reflection of myself. This worried me, because Davis is an asshole. He holds the successful musicians in contempt for losing their integrity as he searches for his own big break. He requests favors from friends who’d rather not even know him. He lives off couches, gets sloshed and heckles amateur folk singers. He gets girls pregnant – and then ‘fixed’ – including (possibly) his friend’s wife played by Carey Mulligan in another one of her exceptional performances. Despicable is a strong word, but Davis should be too far from admirable to evoke empathy from the audience. That is, then, the miracle of Oscar Isaac’s performance. He makes us give a damn about this asshole. The Coens rob him of any right to our pity, but Isaac asks us our empathy. So, in effect, Davis is rendered beautifully human.

Like Joyce, the Coens litter Inside Llewyn Davis with symbols and allusions, two-thirds of which were surely lost on my uninitiated eyes and brain. The third that I did catch is thematically rich. Some symbols are overt and bludgeon us with intent, like the heavenly glow from the offices of Bud Grossman, owner of The Gate of Horn (where dreams are fulfilled). Davis plays the audition of his life inches away from that light. He lays his soul bare with the song “The Death of Queen Jane“. With his dream in reach it is crushed with perhaps the most contradictory of facts about the pursuit of art as career: “I don’t see a lot of money in this,” intones Grossman. Full of talent and lacking marketability, our loser-hero heads back out into the snow and the wind.

Other symbols are less concrete – more flexible – like the cat. Davis occasionally imposes on the hospitality of his better off, and somewhat out of place, friends the Gorfeins. Upon his exit he lets their cat out in a moment that – I’m stretching here – embodies his whole struggle. The cat slips through the threshold and Davis must choose: guitar or cat. Torn in two, he lets the door click locked behind him, with neither cat nor guitar in hand. For the remainder of the film the cat comes and goes as he pleases, regardless of Davis’s efforts to corral and return him. Is the cat a symbol of elusive success? Is it his spirit guide that leads him from episode to episode? Or is it just a damn cat?

Davis’s attachment to the cat – and the Gorfeins themselves – is suspect. Perhaps the cat represents Davis’s lost partner, who was perhaps named Gorfein himself before he was reborn in the folk revival. See: Robert Allen Zimmerman.

Much of Inside Llewyn Davis is beyond my ability to analyze, but it is my duty to urge you to see it immediately. Over the past few years I’ve been coming around on the Coens. They are adept and confident filmmakers who pull each feature off with seeming effortlessness. If I ever peruse their work I am confident that Inside Llewyn Davis will be my favorite. It contains what I would charge the Coens of lacking previously: heart. Through most of their work they have seemed to either be disinterested in their characters or downright contemptuous of them. Inside Llewyn Davis marks, to my eyes, the first time they might actually care about their loser-hero. As a result, the film is more palatable.

By the end Inside Llewyn Davis has come full circle in an almost surreal fashion. It feels like it could be commenting on Davis’s hopelessness as much as his tenacity. And perhaps that’s the point. Striving for integrity and artistry might be admirable, but it’ll leave you out on street, bleeding from the nose.

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