“You’ve probably heard that one before. If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
Here is a little period of time, 1960’s Greenwich Village, which seems to unfold before you. The story of the eponymous Llewyn Davis is one week in the life of a man who is pretty hard to stomach. He’s a young folk singer trying to find his way as a solo act after the suicide of his partner. It’s an ambitious story, but it never goes anywhere. You catch a glimpse into the life of a person whose entire existence lies in entertaining. At the same time, you come away unentertained, save for the catchy songs and standard Coen brother’s quips.
Llewyn Davis is a drifter. He has his guitar, a bag, and no coat for the brutal New York winter. A cat tags along with him. Some nights he plays at the Gaslight Café, others he gets drunk and yells offensive remarks at fellow performers. There is no place for him to call home, and he gets his night’s rest on the couch of whoever is not currently pissed off at him. Oscar Isaac (Drive, 10 Years) plays the titular character and imparts soul into a man that the audience is constantly reminded is an “asshole.” Many were calling his lack of an Oscar nomination a snub. To his credit, his hazy voice and deft fingers on the guitar are outstanding. He doesn’t seem to be acting, which ironically means he is doing a very good job at just that.
The movie has its highs and its lows, with the majority of the standout moments being filled with song. Let there be no mistake, this is a film built upon its musical pieces. They provide a gateway into the personalities and lives of those singing the lyrics. We get an inside look at a recording session, an impromptu dinner performance, and a make it or break it song for a producer. Llewyn Davis is a vehicle for us to understand an existence that is built entirely on artistic achievement. His personal life, and all that comes with it, is just a backup singer to his own sad song of a being.
From the writing and directing team of the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that is easy to admire. The cinematography is top-notch and evokes the smoke-filled underground music landscape of the 60’s. They masterfully use transitions between scenes and allow the audience to infer important pieces of the story, which helps maintain interest. At one point, Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago with the stone cold beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund of Tron: Legacy, Friday Night Lights). Llewyn engages in a one way, dead end conversation. And then it abruptly cuts, and we see him driving while his fellow journeyman sleeps. A lot of movies would reduce that simple act of trust to drawn out chatter, but the Coen brothers are smart enough to allow the audience to feel clever and make that connection on their own.
Movies have the ability to transport us to the time and setting of the story. Whether it’s “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” or a patriarch giving a man an offer he can’t refuse, we can easily forget reality and exist in the fictitious world transpiring before our eyes. That’s the most successful aspect of Inside Llewyn Davis. I wasn’t around in the 60’s, and I imagine most of the film’s viewers weren’t either. But through detailed costume and set design, and dialogue that hearkens back to an earlier time, we witness an honest portrayal of a bygone era. We believe what we see because the film completely believes in itself, and while the story arc has miscues and a wandering sense of indulgent exploration on behalf of Llewyn, we’re still interested to see what life might have been like for a musician in 1960’s New York.
From a technical standpoint, this is easily one of the best movies from this past year. Even a novice filmgoer could acknowledge that. But at the same time, it’s an incredibly hard film to like. Llewyn is a jerk, and while we might hope he catches a break, we don’t really mind if he doesn’t. I find myself saying this about all of the Coen brother’s movies. They are exceptionally talented filmmakers that deliver memorable scenes and insanely quotable dialogue time and time again, but their stories are by and large utterly devoid of heart. It’s like opening a beautifully wrapped and ornate package on your birthday, just to find a thoughtless gift card inside. I can only wonder what kind of film these two could make if they directed something that they didn’t also write. Towards the end of the film, Llewyn performs in front of a small crowd. He finishes and dwells in their modest applause, then plainly says, “That’s what I got.” And that’s exactly what the filmmakers seem to have said as well.
“I’m shipping out. Try something new. I mean something old.”
Rating: 3 out of 5