An interesting film, but a cold one consumed by misanthropy. Inside Llewyn Davis is undoubtedly a work of genius since it’s by Joel and Ethan Coen, the most distinguished of all contemporary filmmakers. They deserve validation for putting an artistic, determined point-of-view on film, but one wonders why they felt they had to tell this story at all. I’ve wondered and wondered some more since seeing it, and came up with some mixed answers. I’m going to be boldly honest in saying that I’ve been pulling my hair out all week over this one, because I’ve gone back and forth from not liking it and, say, admiring it. I was struck in the early morning before writing this review that I myself am not totally unlike its grumpy lead protagonist. I’ve lived on the fringes with only a few hundred, if maybe a few thousand followers of my writing. And here Llewyn Davis is a 1960’s folk musician skirting the edge of oblivion, too, but keeps grinding away because he has a small niche following. Perhaps he has a following. Only perhaps.
Oscar Isaac is the actor who plays Llewyn, and I’ve never gotten over my aversion to him from “Sucker Punch” (2011), I’ve such loathing that I admit I didn’t want to see him in a role as a major character in a Coen Brothers film. The early parts of the film set-up his routine: Perform a gig, schmooze with other rising musicians, crash on acquaintances couches, get irritable and surly with other acquaintances, beg his manager to set him up on better paying gigs. He also chases around a cat, a motif in the film, and an overused one at that. I guess the point is he could be somewhere else moving forward with his career or his life, but he’s sidetracked with the nuisance of something like a cat.
He is told by Jean (Carey Mulligan, hmm sweet with some, not with Llewyn), a folk singer herself, that she is pregnant with his child. Much of the film makes a big deal Llewyn needs to pay for her abortion, and yet, I wondered why they slept with each other if she has such hostility towards Llewyn. The film eventually provides us with a brilliant answer. With that reveal, Llewyn, in addition to being a grouch, a pest, and a malcontent, also is something of a chump. Jean slept with Llewyn, but also slept with other guys, but Llewyn will be the one to pay out of his own pocket. What order of guys did Jean sleep with is a good question.
The music by T Bone Burnett is award-winning caliber, in terms of being fantastic jivey music and for its textural period music level. Llewyn sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” “Fare Thee Well,” “The Death of Queen Jane” and other songs and his charisma during performance elevates considerably. But the morbid joke of the movie is that he is not a likeable guy, and he comes off as envious of his peers in a murmuring but spiteful way. Or perhaps the universe doesn’t favor him simply because his talents don’t belong in this particular history of time. Hmm, like me. Ouch, I think of myself. I wonder, for instance, how much considerably more successful I would have been had I come thirty years earlier. For Llewyn, however, he might have been better off had he come to the scene thirty years later.
Films don’t always have to be a sanctification of good people. “Raging Bull” (1980), “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995), “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) are masterpieces – and they’re about self-destructive or repugnant people but the volatility of those films is thrilling. Not quite a masterpiece but still fine is that Woody Allen film from awhile back, the fiery and up-tempo film called “Sweet and Lowdown” with Sean Penn as a self-destructive 1920’s blues musician – just terrific, blustery and boisterous (a better film than “Llewyn Davis”). The Coens, with their ice-cold color palette as a visual style with the aid of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, have made something stubbornly gloomy, you can feel the bitter wind whistling around the lonely ears of Llewyn. You can’t possibly love this picture, I hope not. But for the damn of it, the intellectual part of me has come around and admires it after I’ve had a few days to digest it.
Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund and F. Murray Abraham are among the cast members. Some of today’s younger audiences might not get that (an actor playing) Bob Dylan makes an appearance at the end because they might not know who Bob Dylan is. Llewyn is out of sync with the world, a guy of perpetual missed connections. I can’t get the final scenes out of my head, that’s my compliment to the Coens but my praise is muted for them this time.
105 Minutes. Rated R.
MUSICAL DRAMA / FOOD FOR THOUGHT / PROVOCATIVE MOOD
Film Cousins: “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999); “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000); “A Serious Man” (2009); “Not Fade Away” (2012).