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The Coen Brothers' 'Inside Llewyn Davis' Is Soulful, Deeply Human, and Meditative

By Caspar Salmon | Film Reviews | December 26, 2013 | Comments ()


Inside Llewyn Davis pic.jpg

It may be best to consider Inside Llewyn Davis in the lineage of Barton Fink and A Serious Man. The new movie shares with those two a smaller mode, played out mostly in the minor key, and like those two films finds its main character — a folk singer down on his luck, in other words a prototypic Coen brothers shmuck — freewheeling and lost. Music is his medium, and the film is full of great folk covers pastiches, loving recreated by the great T. Bone Burnett, but only because the main character needs a metier of some sort. Llewyn could be anything: the thing is that he is lost, does not fit in, and does not know where he’s going. The picture posits this best in a confrontation between Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) and his some-time lover Jean (Carey Mulligan, over-acting), in which she accuses him of not considering his own future, and he tells her she’s selling out because she wants to make a living and settle down. Llewyn is a bum — a self-absorbed, casually cruel and vain man, who looks down on the mainstream, in much the same way The Dude sees everyone else as squares in The Big Lebowski — but unlike The Dude, Llewyn wants to succeed, wants to be recognised and to belong. His tragedy is his hopefulness.

The film begins in New York, where Llewyn is eking out an existence — the word is important in this film — by playing small-time gigs and sleeping on friends’ couches. Llewyn is always waiting for another paycheck, a new gig, wanting the amount of money that will help him get by, or the big chance that will help him make it big. Jean is pregnant, possibly by him, and asks him to foot her abortion bill. Staying with friends, Llewyn manages to lose their cat. He alienates friends, colleagues and family alike. On a whim, he heads to Chicago, to see if he can audition there for a powerful impresario.

The mid-picture scenes in which Llewyn heads to Chicago stand out as the boldest, most fluent and fully realised sequence in the film. The picture takes on an almost mystical, fable-like quality, as Llewyn finds himself driving to Chicago with a cat, an old cantankerous man (John Goodman, making light work of stealing the film) and his rockabilly “valet” (Garret Hedlund). Goodman’s character -a jazzer - stands for everything that Llewyn abhors, and he in turn makes clear to the young folk singer, in wonderfully blunt Coen brothers speak, how great is his disdain for him. Garret Hedlund, wordless and enigmatic throughout, stands for the Beat generation, but I think his quietness and the way the film deals with him signify the ultimate emptiness of that movement. In a lovely snow-bound scenes, the picture closes out this episode poignantly.

Inside Llewyn Davis strikes out from their previous work in making a bid for more emotional territory: at the heart of the film lies an emotional void, an absence. That is Llewyn’s former musical partner: how much he is missing from Llewyn’s life is made clear in some touching scenes, played well by Isaac. Isaac in fact plays all his scenes very well, making his character a sort of vector for the film’s events: he has the right amount of passivity, and plays Llewyn’s careless naivety just right. By the end of the journey — because the film has a smart circular structure, bringing its story right round to the same point it began — you sense much more than at the beginning how worn out Llewyn is, how far he has gone without arriving anywhere. This is due to Isaac’s great performance as much as it is to the clever, careful script: salty and sly in the Coen manner, it also has a new soulfulness that is very welcome.

The film plays its symbolism a little heavily at times, making perhaps a bit too much of the cat and its parallel story. But there is so much craft, such good attention to detail — in the 60s recreation and the music that forms the backbone of the film, especially — and there are some very strong scenes full of observation and heart. I’m thinking of a crucial scene in which Llewyn visits his father: filmed starkly, it offers up a grimly dark comedy of manners, underplayed for even greater power.

Ultimately, this feels like a smaller Coen brothers film, a small fable revisiting their old wheelhouse of outsiders in an unforgiving world — but it seems to have a more personal touch, with some interesting allusions to Jewishness, death, and creative partnership. The stylistic exercises of music and period recreation are successfully done, but more than this, Inside Llewyn Davis stands out in the brothers’ work as a deeply human and meditative work.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • 'Cat', 'Greenwich Village', 'Folk Scene', 'John Goodman', Coen Brothers'... I'm in.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Italics much?

    Despite that, I'm happy that the Coens keep doing a good job.

  • the_wakeful

    You missed a [/] in there somewhere.

  • Natallica

    I like how you didn't mentioned Timberlake even once. Which probably means his role is not essential in the movie. Which, in turn, makes me a very happy camper

  • Eve

    The cat has more screen time than him (so I've heard) and that makes me REALLY happy.

    Not as happy as if there was NO Timberlake in the movie whatsoever, but still...

  • meadowdancer

    I felt bad that he pretty much showed up Oscar Issacs at Cannes. I was mistaken thinking that Justin Timberlake was the star and was going to cancel on seeing this movie but now will see it due to this review and knowing I won't have to watch TImberlake "act."

    FYI Oscar Issac killed it for me in 10 Years. I loved him in that movie.

  • Caspar

    Justin Timberlake's role is very minor in this film. He isn't bad in it, but he isn't very good either. I'm not a fan of his acting, but he is scarcely in this film.

  • meadowdancer

    Oh no I want to see this it was just prior to this article all I keep seeing were pics of Timberlake at Cannes for this film. I love indie movies and friends and I always go to the indie theater and this was one of our picks. Once I saw the picks at Cannes I thought oh no a Justin Timberlake movie, planning on skipping. However, now that i know it's Oscar Issac we are all definitely going. He is wonderful.

    And yep I think Timberlake is a deplorable actor when he's not hosting SNL. He cannot act. He is Justin Timberlake in every role I have seen him in and it physically hurts me to see him act. I wish he had some class though and let Oscar Issac who is the leading man you know lead during Cannes instead of making it be about him.

  • sunflowerseed

    The backlash has been cruel. But I don't really understand it. He has done nothing so horrible filmwise to piss you off. People loved him after Social Network and the Kunis-afterglow-movie. How did the whole SNL-galore, him getting a mediocre music album out and getting married make you hate him so much? I am not being cheeky, I just don't understand the way this fleeting POP love thing works.

  • Eve

    "He has done nothing so horrible filmwise to piss you off.

    How did the whole SNL-galore, him getting a mediocre music album out and getting married make you hate him so much?"

    Are you serious? Or are you mistaking me for someone else?

    Because I don't understand why you got all that from my single post. I also fail to see where in my post I sound like I hate him. I just think the man cannot act -- it's not that I think he's a bad actor, he is not an actor at all.

    I have no opinion on his music -- it's not my style, I don't listen to it. I don't give a flying f*ck about his personal life. But somehow you think I must hate him for not wanting to watch his pathetic, embarrassing attempts at acting. You should be a little more objective: just because people don't want to see him in movies that doesn't mean they hate him.

    You're right about not being cheeky. You're just sounding like a biased fangirl.

  • sunflowerseed

    I used the word "hate" in the way that it is often being used around these parts of the Internet. I didn't use for its literal meaning but wanted to convey "a strong dislike that could possibly convince you not to watch a movie he is in on the sole grounds of him being in it or that could strongly diminish your pleasure at seeing that movie". Which is exactly what I think you meant and your clarification about him being a terrible actor seems to confirm that.

    I certainly don't see myself as a fangirl of Mr. Timbelake (although to get back on topic about Llewyn and the Coen Brothers, I can imagine myself doing things to Ms. Mulligan's body that even the craziest fangirl wouldn't dream of, especially if she was in that angry mood she's been displaying in the trailer).

    I am not a native English speaker so I grant you that the word "cheeky" might not be appropriate but I am conscious of my subjective opinion as I think all of our opinions are in that matter. You either enjoy or don't enjoy an actor's abilities. I tend to hear good reactions to his acting(or at least used to) and I was curious to know why that seems to have changed overnight. Seems to me it is classical backlash and it might have to do with other stuff than acting, so that was me speculating. Now that I got your very strongly expressed opinion I'm wondering if they are other takes on his sudden lack of popularity around here.

  • Eve

    Again, I feel like you're trying to make the point that *I* (me, Eve) have something personal against Timberlake, therefore my opinion on his "acting" is invalid. You singled me out. You chose to click on the reply button to me (even though there was another poster with a similar opinion -- Natallica), you used the word "hate" and the expression "pissed you off" to suggest that's how I feel about him -- and that's a well-known passive-aggressive technique used on internet boards in order to discredit one's opinion.

    And you're wrong: aside from that insulting video mocking homeless people that was played during his million-dollar wedding ceremony in Italy (but I would have been upset just the same had it been someone else's wedding), I have no strong feelings towards him. Yes, I think he's a douchebag. But so is James Franco -- who, in spite of his ego and overal displays of entitlement, IS a good actor, in my opinion.

    You talk about hearing good reactions to his acting and you say that changed overnight. I don't know where you come from or what are your social circles because what I've always heard about his "acting" is NOT complimentary. Also, and let me repeat this, it's not that I don't like Justin Timberlake's "acting abilities" (trying to type that while keeping a straight face is really hard), or that I think he's a terrible actor: I clearly said he's NOT an actor in the first place. Can he become one? I don't know, probably not...but just like Madonna, he'll keep trying. Do I care if he lands roles in silly, forgettable romantic comedies? Nope, since I don't watch romantic comedies anyway. Does it bother me that he occasionally gets roles that should/could be in better hands (a.k.a. real actors)? Yes, that bothers me. But, again, that's certainly NOT because of how I personally feel about him, but because I think he has NO acting talent whatsoever.

    By the way, just so you know...I only use the word "hate" when I actually hate something or someone (and you can look around here to see if I've ever used it in the way you claim people do it "around these parts") so, please, try not to generalize when addressing another commenter on the internet.

  • sunflowerseed

    Obviously you do feel singled out and that was not my intention in the least. I replied to the last comment on the topic and I apologize for causing you that much anger about such a trivial matter.

  • Eve

    Oh, please. There's a rectangular box saying "Leave a message..." right at the top of the comments, where anyone -- using a Disqus account or not -- can post an original comment addressing the article/topic, not particular commenters.

    But when you click on the "reply" button right under a poster, then your comment is meant to address said poster. You're being deliberately obtuse (or, you know, just trolling at this point).

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