Note: Since I saw a (very) advanced screening of Inside Llewyn Davis, I’m reposting my previous review now because it’s just opening in Boston.
I will start off this review by saying I am not as familiar with the Coen brothers as I should be. They are very respected in the cinema world and have some die-hard fans, but for some reason I’ve just never been one of them. I love O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men I thought was pretty good, but I couldn’t even finish Burn After Reading because the humor was just not going over well with me. Of course I’ve been told to watch Fargo a million times, and I will eventually, but just never had the motivation. Nevertheless, I was anticipating this film. Not a lot, but I was looking forward to it. It turned out to be better than I could have ever guessed.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer struggling to make ends meet and get his career on track. The film covers about a week, in which he crashes at other people’s houses, plays at several venues, hitchhikes to Chicago, and most importantly, gets turned down again and again. There isn’t much of an overarching plot, the film just follows Llewyn through his desperation. One gets a sense of how hard things for him are; this isn’t the cliche story of a musician rising to fame, fall, and redemption. Llewyn is guy who doesn’t even get that far. The plot is interestingly constructed in a circle, to show the vicious cycle of rejection and failure that Llewyn is trapped in. While this sounds like Llewyn hasn’t progressed at all during the film, it doesn’t seem that way when you watch it because you can make some better guesses as to how he got where he is.
And where he is, is The Gaslight Cafe. After he’s finished his number, he is informed that a man wants to see him. He goes out back to meet him, and is mercilessly beaten. This is not only the beginning, but also the end. He then goes to a friend’s house, stays there for a night, then goes to another friends house. Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) are also musicians, and they end up at The Gaslight again. Meanwhile, a cat has attached itself to Llewyn and Jean informs him she’s pregnant and it might be his. Apparently this happens a lot, he seems to be pretty friendly with an abortion doctor, as if he’s a regular.
An interesting thing the film does is present opportunities for the film to become cliche, then deliberately avoid them. He has this cat for a while, he looses it, then finds it again and returns it, only to discover it’s not the cat he originally lost. So now he has this other cat. Which he doesn’t form a deep emotional attachment to, he just carries it around until it slows him up. He also finds out that one of his girlfriends did not go through with her abortion, so he has a kid out in Akron that he’s never met and is not supposed to know exists. On the way back from Chicago, he drives right past Akron, looking at the exit sign, but doesn’t get off. And then of course there’s the film overall, which avoids the conventional rise, fall, redemption plot like you see in Walk the Line, for example.
There are so many opportunities for Llewyn to make it, or at least make something. When he goes to Chicago, he actually does get to play for a guy that maybe could give him a gig of some sort. He doesn’t think Llewyn can do a solo but would be willing to put him in a trio that already has two people in it. Llewyn could have been like “okay I’ll do this now until something better comes along” but that’s just not how he is. He’s a solo act, singing these obscure folk songs, and that’s what he does. He refuses to compromise, and whether you consider that a good or bad thing, that is one thing that’s holding back. He’s incredibly stubborn. It’s not only Llewyn’s fault though. Yes, he’s irresponsible, has a hard time relating to people outside of music, and can be a real jerk sometimes, but he’s a great performer. He opens up when he starts performing, but doesn’t much otherwise. His manager is terrible, for one thing, and doesn’t promote him at all. Folk music is not super popular at this point, so that’s another obstacle. The rest is probably just bad luck, to be honest.
I should have realized this going in, based on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, that the Coens would do a fantastic job of integrating music into the film. Every one of the actors does their own singing and playing live in the film, like in Les Mis. The soundtrack is even better in my opinion; it plays better as a whole album and works just as well in the film. There’s a scene where Llewyn and Jim are recording a song for some quick cash that is really hilarious, akin to the scene in O Brother Where Art Thou? when they “sing into a can.” The film is not a musical, even though it has a much singing as one. All the music happens in the story line; the characters actually are singing these songs and it feels completely natural.
The performances are great across the board. Isaac basically has to carry the whole movie, as a lot of is just him on his own. The supporting characters don’t play as big of a part because Llewyn just bounces around between all of them. Nevertheless, Carey Mulligan still manages to stand out (though that may be just because I like her so much). Isaac does a great job of portraying Llewyn as a deep character, one who has a rich inner life that only comes out when he’s performing. When he isn’t, his emotions generally range from apathetic to angry. He also works really well with the cat, think Jean Dujardin and the dog from The Artist. There was a scene where Llewyn and the cat moved their heads the same way that reminded me a lot of The Artist, actually.
I really loved Inside Llewyn Davis. I hope it gets some recognition come awards season, but I can’t help but worry that it will be overshadowed by bigger films like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. Inside Llewyn Davis has a lot to say about music and art, and offers a great look at its main character. It also has a good amount of humor (typical Coen style) and I cannot praise the soundtrack enough. Overall I loved the movie and would definitely recommend it.
“If it was never new it never gets old.”
Long story short: 3.5/4
For further reading: