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Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013; Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

As lucid as it is cryptic, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis is a feedback loop with a tantalizing split end. The film is a masterful recreation of the early-1960s Greenwich Village folk music scene seen through the semi-fictional perspective of one talented but luckless performer who alternately drifts and blazes through it. It’s also concerned with the conflict between art and commerce, between bohemian practices and bourgeois ideals, between older and younger generations, between competing and opposed countercultural subsets. It also follows the narrative path of Homer’s Odyssey, though much more subtly and ambiguously than the Coens’ renowned musically-focused feature O Brother, Where Art Thou? once did. Llewyn says that a folk song was never new and never gets old, and like the uncanny recognition of just such a song circling back to its chorus, this is a film of eternal return.

Although Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis is loosely based on Village folk fixture Dave Van Ronk (Davis’ album cover is a direct recreation of Van Ronk’s best-known release), the film that bears his name is haunted by associative echoes of the scene’s embryonic titan, the Coens’ fellow famed Minnesotan Bob Dylan. He appears at the film’s conclusion, glimpsed and overheard by Llewyn as he walks out of the legendary Gaslight Cafe, but is barely worth a longer pause. If more important and momentous things do happen in this life, the Coens suggest that they’re more likely to pass mostly unnoticed as we wander aimlessly and strive to survive. “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” sang Dylan songwriting disciple John Lennon. Llewyn Davis’ life is consumed in making other plans, or scrabbling together enough money and scant opportunity to try to make them.

The film opens with Llewyn (Isaac is a revelation as both a singer and thespian, a real find) singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” (a Van Ronk staple) absolutely exquisitely in the Gaslight before being cornered and beat up by a shadowy man in a suit in the back alley. As lovingly detailed as the Coens’ revivified period Village scene is, it’s never romanticized. Music, even Llewyn’s unquestionably quality material, is not transcendent. Contrary to conventional musical film’s terms of inspirational uplift, it has no power to magically overcome material conditions in this wintry setting of perpetual failure, as the Coens repeatedly, insistently underline. Every time Llewyn plays a song, disaster and disappointment follows; physical violence, awkward social arguments, insults, voiding of bowels, rejection and diminishment.

“I don’t see a lot of money here,” is the withering verdict of influential Chicago folk club operator Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), whom Llewyn has travelled uncomfortably from New York City to audition for. What else need be said? Llewyn is an artist, and not a bad one. Commerce doesn’t give a shit about his art, though. Consumer capitalism needs something it can sell, and Llewyn’s labours aren’t worth much. When he does get a decent paying gig, it’s on a goofball novelty track about astronauts by his buddy Jim (Justin Timberlake, playing an accurately square period folksinger version of himself). And even then, he passes up on potentially lucrative royalties on the track for a one-time $200 payday to fund an abortion for Jim’s girlfriend Jean (a potty-mouthed Carey Mulligan), whom he may or may not have gotten pregnant. “You’re like King Midas’ idiot brother,” Jean tells him in a chilly Washington Square Park, and it’s true. Everything he touches turns to shit, except his music, and that can’t really help him overcome his other problems.

Llewyn drifts from couch to couch in New York’s boroughs, often returning to his sister’s place in Queens, to Jim and Jean’s in the West Village, and to the Upper West Side pad of a Columbia sociology professor named Gorfein (Ethan Phillips), who shows him off to dinner guests like a favourite party trick. He loses the latter’s cat, returns the wrong one, and then sets off for Chicago with the incorrect substitute feline in tow, hitching a desultory ride with a cantakerous, disdainful, and incontinent jazz musician (John Goodman) and his “valet” and amateur poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). Llewyn, like the Gorfeins’ cat (hintingly named Ulysses), finds his way “home” again in the end (“Llewyn is the cat,” Gorfein’s admin mishears him over the phone, a message as clear as a lighted marquee). The joke is that he’s homeless, and in his transient existence has no home to return to like the Greek literary hero. Llewyn’s narrative returns to its framed beginning by the end of the film, with a double-exposed promise of both a correction of his errors and suffering and a helpless repetition of them.

Inside Llewyn Davis is beautifully made, of course. The soundtrack (produced by O Brother impresario T-Bone Burnett with an assist from Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons) is unsurprisingly spectacular, as is the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel. It could also be considered a bit of a downer for a viewer not sufficiently attuned to Isaac’s depressed reactions to his mounting failures and to the Coens’ wry, deadpan offbeat humour (“Where’s his scrotum, Llewyn?” Gorfein’s wife asks him hysterically when she discovers their male cat has been replaced by a female one). But like the folk songs that Llewyn sings with such moving precision and idiosyncratic feeling, Inside Llewyn Davis is both familiar and unfamiliar, never new and never old. Its artistry, like its protagonist’s, may confound commercial imperatives, but it circles back to a resonant crossroads of roughly equal hope and cynicism.

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Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

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