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Inside Llewyn Davis (Coens, 2013)

One of the first lines of dialogue featured in Inside Llewyn Davis comes when folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) tells a humble audience, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” Such is the case for Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from Ethan and Joel Coen with a story that’s been told countless times before yet lives as a breath of fresh air in the current climate of cinema. The film centers on Llewyn Davis, an up and coming folk singer in the ‘60s trying to make it in the music industry. He’s grungier than what men were supposed to look like in the early ‘60s and his attitude is more cynical than the average do-gooder prevalent throughout the film. Llewyn is recovering from the loss of his former singing partner, jumping from couch to couch and doing his best to make it as a solo act. He has his fair share of baggage, including a bitter ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan), an unresponsive father and a stubborn cat that isn’t even his. Llewyn is largely unsuccessful in his efforts to make it big, with numerous people telling him he’s making poor decisions. This doesn’t stop him from pressing onward anyway.


The folk scene in the early ‘60s is still based on hometown values and earnest sensibility, a pattern Llewyn notices throughout the film. Some of the simple young musicians Llewyn associates with include an idealistic military man named Troy (Stark Sands) and his sweater-wearing friend Jim (Justin Timberlake). Llewyn looks at these men with a sense of pity bordering on disgust, as if to say that he’s the only one who truly gets it — what life is really about. He thinks that very few people understand the truth about life’s hardships, and most of his songs have a cynical tone that reflects these hardships. With lyrics like “hang me, oh hang me, I’ll be dead and gone,” and “fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well,” Llewyn is trying to get to the heart of the truth, even if no one around him really wants to hear it.

 

There is more to Inside Llewyn Davis than just the tale of a loner folk singer trying to make it big, though. The Coen brothers are known for their abstract, existential looks at the plight of mankind and its behaviors, and they inject this film with their signature “life is messy” style. Beneath everything, Llewyn is a man with just as many flaws as he has strengths. He is beaten up several times over the course of the film, both physically and emotionally by people frustrated by his malaise. His solo record Inside Llewyn Davis, which suggests a look into the real him, is a failed investment. He is a man who desperately wants someone to save him; he hopes in vain that someone will discover him and appreciate his artistry. Yet he cannot help himself from pushing back whenever someone gets too close. 

 
Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

As Llewyn soon discovers, his story just isn’t something that sells well with the public. People don’t want to hear about hangings and apathy towards departed lovers. They’d much rather hear a humorous yet inconsequential song like “Please Mr. Kennedy” than anything of true meaning. In many ways, this truth is reflected in most art forms in regard to their perception by the general public. The public would rather go to an escapist blockbuster like The Fast and the Furious than see a film with deep meaning and nuance. Llewyn does not want to compromise his artistic vision, despite his one instance of selling out for a quick buck by contributing to “Please Mr. Kennedy.” He does not want to change, either in his music or his life in general. Like the blockbusters of today, Llewyn sees how easy it is to make mindless entertainment but he’s too stubborn to sell himself out, even if if means staying on friends’ couches for a few more months.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel gives the film a bleak, grayish-brown look that suits its relatively cynical outlook on life itself. It would be easy to romanticize the ‘60s folk scene, as many films have done while looking through rose-colored glasses. What the Coen brothers have done in conjunction with Isaac, Delbonnel and music producer T. Bone Burnett is create a vision of how most artists (hell, people in general) live their lives, in the ‘60s or otherwise. Like Llewyn, people make mistakes and horrible things tend to happen to them, even if they consider themselves “good” and not deserving of such punishment. Each of us has believed at some point that we have something to offer the world, but that doesn’t mean that our desires are reciprocal. Llewyn is an honest singer. He’s also kind of an asshole. But that doesn’t mean his story isn’t worth telling, even if most people aren’t willing to hear it.

Grade: A
MVP: Oscar Isaac

Awards Potential:

Best Picture
Best Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Best Actor: Oscar Isaac
Best Original Screenplay
Best Production Design
Best Cinematography
Best Costume Design

Photo: CBS Films

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