Criterion Collection · Drama · Music · United States

#794 Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)



Inside Llewyn Davis

2013 // USA // Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Criterion Release Date: January 19, 2016 (LINK)

I have tried to articulate words for the last half hour regarding the latest (2013) film from the Coen brothers Inside Llewyn Davis, but to no avail. I want to start by saying how much I love all of the folk songs performed in the film, indeed I bought the soundtrack immediately after watching the film three years ago. On second thought, it seems too pretentious to focus on the type of songs which I’m totally unfamiliar with. I was not born in the 60s, did not heard of the Greenwich Village before, and only know Bob Dylan from the documentary Dont Look Back (1967), which all depicted or, in Bob Dylan scenario, hinted in the film.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) and “his” cat

I’m hardly a “musical” guy, what more could I say besides the music? How about the pair of creative genius behind the film, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen? Although I do not count myself to be the loyal fans of the Coen brothers, I do like and enjoy most of their works, including their occasional exclusive screenplay effort, like the recent Bridge of Spies (2015). There’s always a dark and sly humor hidden somewhere. Even in Inside Llewyn Davis, basically a chronicle of a failed musician, one could easily watch it all through in laughter. Maybe I’m being sarcastic, as much as our ill-fated titular hero Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is.

The inspiration of Llewyn Davis: Dave Van Ronk

Llewyn Davis is a jerk. Capricious, stubborn, self-centered, yet gifted in music. His personal life is a disaster to look at. He made his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) pregnant, whom Jim (Justin Timberlake) happens to have an ongoing and stable relationship with. He lost the cat of the old Gorfein couple (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), his “biggest” artistic supporters, even worse he bought the wrong cat back. His ex-partner Mike, committed suicide by jumping off a bridge before the film started. He lives by couch-surfing, staying from one friend’s home to the other, and hardly makes end meet. Even got beat up by the a stranger at the “beginning” and at the “end” of the film. It is a purgatory of the loser, a vicious cycle, Llewyn Davis is a Sisyphus-like tragic figure.

Jean (Carey Mulligan) and her unexpected pregenancy

If one expect an inspirational Hollywood “feel good movie”, expect the record manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) to simply say “yes you’re hired” after the Llewyn’s audition, you may purchase the wrong ticket. But as I stated earlier, you can still laugh it through. For instance, Llewyn’s trip to Chicago with the ride-along acid-tongue Jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and the laconic Beat Generation exemplar Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), is almost a short slapstick road trip comedy on its own. And who could forget the hilarious playful song “Please Mr. Kennedy”, sang by the trio Llewyn, Jim and Al Cody (Adam Driver), which now looks like a friendly meeting between Poe Dameron (again Oscar Issac) and Kylo Ren (again Adam Driver) before it turns sour in Star Wars.

Llewyn, Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver) preparing the song “Please Mr. Kennedy”
Roland Turner (John Goodman) in his road trip

“Artistic failure”, considered by critics as the theme of Inside Llewyn Davis, is the cruel truth that one can’t live by solely with his/her talent. Is Llewyn talented? Bud Grossman said his songs don’t make money. The audience at the Gaslight Nightclub listened to his song more likely with respect than enthusiasm. Instead of firmly stating Llewyn is a truly talented but unfortunately mistreated guy, the film left it as an open interpretation. Oscar Issac gave a performance of vulnerability and endurance simultaneously, absolutely riveting.

Needless to say, the overall atmospheric 60s is charming and hypnotizing. Coen brothers are masters in recreating any by-gone era, from the Prohibition period in Miller’s Crossing (1990) or the 40s Hollywood in Barton Fink (1991), to the old Wild West in True Grit (2010), there are no question in authenticity and, more importantly, the nostalgic emotion. Inside Llewyn Davis may not come as the best of Coen brothers, but definitely one of their stronger one. It has transcendence of time, so does music, and any other great arts.
Film Rating: 4.5/5

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