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Inside Llewyn Davis – Review

January 24, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


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Don’t let the outrageous Oscar snub fool you. Despite being criminally left out of this year’s most illustrious awards race, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the best films of the year and most certainly, one of the brightest highlights in the Coen brothers’ brilliant and prolific filmography. If it’s any consolation, the film won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival back in May, where it had its first public outing and well, Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t short on Academy Awards after all since Fargo won best original screenplay in 1997 while No Country For Old Men won best directing and best film in 2008. Yet I can’t help being disappointed by the lack of Oscar love for Llewyn Davis although at the same time I must admit it poetically fits the spirit of the film.

This picaresque odyssey circa 1961 is set in the New York folk music scene of the time and starts off with the title character in a club, passionately performing a song that laments “Hang me, oh hang me” and then sees him getting a harsh beating in a dark alleyway outside the venue. It’s a pivotal moment, symbolic of the protagonist’s journey and the film’s rich themes and you’d better pay attention to it: the scene will return to bookend the story with a few more details and a different angle that explain a lot and yet manage to leave you with an enigmatic sense of wonder about Llewyn Davis’ destiny. Maybe that’s why, among other reasons, the film didn’t connect with the Academy’s expectations of things neatly tied with a tight bow, especially for a story about an emerging artist’s struggle to find commercial success without compromising his artistic integrity.

Llewyn Davis, flawlessly portrayed by Oscar Isaac, was part of a folk duo but after his partner’s suicide he’s having a hard time reinventing himself as a solo act. His debut record was a flop, his geriatric agent is doing nothing to help his career and all he seems to achieve, aside from a freelance collaboration here and there on other artists’ records is “gigging” at the Gaslight café’. He’s broke and homeless but still manages to get by thanks to the generosity of friends that offer him a couch and a warm meal, despite him being so self-absorbed to the point of often jeopardizing these relationships. No doubt he’s an unsympathetic protagonist, borderline anti-hero but he’s also a talented singer/songwriter, passionate about his music, and trying hard to make a living out of his art.

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Events take place within the span of a week in Llewyn’s life, following him in his relentless attempts at finally catching a break and finding a turning point in what has become a vicious circle of survival, of living up in the air, scrapping for money and alienating former lovers that might be pregnant with his illegitimate child, aggravating them with his commitment-phobe nature. Within the display of these unflattering qualities of his persona, Llewyn still wins us over with his aloof humor and endearingly clumsy attempts at taking care of his friends’ cat he accidentally locked out of their apartment on his way out. Ulysses, the non-randomly named feline, becomes not simply a mascot but rather another symbolic piece of the puzzle in Llewyn’s search for answers.

The film’s title (that’s also the title of Llewyn’s solo album) is a reference to Van Ronk’s 1963 album “Inside Dave Van Ronk” but Llewyn is an original and totally fictional character. Surely he shares Van Ronk’s working class background but for the rest Van Ronk was an inspiration only in regards to his music repertoire: specifically songs that derive from the Scots-Irish-Anglo tradition as opposed to the Southern tradition of the blues. The music, produced by T-Bone Burnett, permeates the film from start to finish and it’s outstanding. Oscar Isaac and his fellow cast members, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Stark Sands and Adam Driver (in a hilarious turn) all brilliantly perform their parts in the soundtrack that also includes Marcus Mumford as the voice of Llewyn’s deceased former musical partner.

In a recent interview to Little White Lies Joel Coen said: “there are people who are good at what they do who are not successful, and that’s what the film is kind of about.” I’d like to add how the film explores another interesting theme in relation to that topic. How far would you go to make your dreams come true? How much shit can you eat and when is it time to give up, at least on the possibility of making a living out of your art? Can you still find happiness and accomplishment in your craft simply as a means to express yourself? When asked by his sister what would happen if the music didn’t work out, Llewyn interrupts her mid-question saying: “What? Quit? Just… Exist?” And that dilemma surely is the driving force in Llewyn’s journey.

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Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece of sophisticated witty humor and artistic romanticism that perfectly distills the tragedy and the joy of what it means to be an artist. It brims with intensity and adventurous spirit worthy of a Beat Generation novel, peppered with unforgettable original music and taken to the next level by the entire cast’s outstanding performances (among others John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund deliver memorable appearances in a quite atmospheric sequence where Llewyn road trips to Chicago to seek fortune with a famous local manager). There wasn’t any need for further proof but once again Joel and Ethan Coen confirm they’re amongst the most relevant filmmakers on the scene and I can only hope they continue to gift us with their genius for many more years to come.

Inside Llewyn Davis is out in UK cinemas today.

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor