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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Inside Llewyn Davis review: trying of the human spirit

Inside Llewyn Davis green light Oscar Isaac

Hilarious in the Coens’ weird, askew way, but also absolutely crushing. This movie breaks my heart in a hundred different ways.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the Coen Brothers

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

After a second viewing this week of what is, I figure, Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterpiece atop a career of masterpieces, I am all about trying to figure out what this odd little plot device means and what that unusual line of dialogue could be hinting at and just why did the Coens — writing and directing together — intend to suggest with that interesting thing over there. Oh, how I love it when the Coens give us a movie that’s an intellectual puzzle!

I especially like it in the case of Inside LLewyn Davis because here, they have also given us a film that is an emotional playground like none they’ve played in before, and I can hardly bear to linger there too long. I don’t want to think about. Because this movie is absolutely crushing, and breaks my heart in a hundred different ways. Even all the possible solutions to the puzzle that is Llewyn Davis are fucking depressing as hell. Note: This is not a bad thing. I think it’s safe to assume that the reason the film was all but overlooked when this year’s Oscar nominations were announced is that it refuses to engage in the relentless optimism that typifies American filmmaking. The human spirit does not triumph here. Cuz sometimes it doesn’t. And all the feel-goodery isn’t just unrealistic, it’s can also be exhausting, particularly when you know it’s bullshit. Sometimes life is unfair, and sometimes life just plain sucks, no matter how often the movies tell us otherwise.

Could be this is the first time misery and despair made for a refreshing change of pace.

Could be Llewyn’s plight just hits way too close to home for me.

Unlike all those happy optimistic Oscar nominees — yes, even 12 Years a Slave — this movie isn’t about survival, it’s about drowning. It’s about giving up the fight. After a failed career as part of a traditional folk duo in the late 50s and very early 60s, Llewyn (oh my god, Oscar Isaac: The Bourne Legacy, Drive; oh my god) has been trying to make it on his own, after a breakup with his former partner, the details of which are unclear as the film opens. Of no fixed abode, he has nowhere to sleep except the couches of whichever friends and acquaintances are the least pissed off with him this week. He can’t get any royalties out of his manager for his solo album, Inside Llewyn Davis, probably because no one is buying it. After he sings a beautiful song — about, okay, death — for a folk promoter, hoping for a gig, he is dismissed with “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Which is very likely an accurate assessment of Llewyn’s art. And in the world we live in, money matters.

The film meanders like a folk song itself through one week in cold, snowy February 1961 — Llewyn doesn’t even have a winter coat — as Llewyn bounces from his sister’s (Jeanine Serralles) house in Queens, where he is barely tolerated; to Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe, where he sometimes plays for tip money; to the tiny downtown apartment of married folk duo Jim (Justin Timberlake [Runner Runner, Trouble with the Curve], an absolutely inspired bit of casting) and Jean (Carey Mulligan: The Great Gatsby, Shame), where Jean hates him and snarls at him that everything he touches turns to shit; to the near palatial Upper West Side place of academic couple the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips [The Island, Bad Santa] and Robin Bartlett [Shutter Island, City of Angels]), who treat him sort of like a pet: “our folk singer friend” is how they introduce him to others. But at least the Gorfeins are kindly; Llewyn doesn’t get a lot of affection from anyone. To be fair, while he is extraordinarily engaging as a fictional character, he might be a tough person to like personally. He’s arrogant, stubborn, superior, and quick to display his disdain for anything he considers stupid or ridiculous, like the sort of music the folk crowd is embracing. The insipid, repetitious crap Jim and Jean sing? Really? *sigh*

But he’s not wrong.

It’s not that Llewyn Davis isn’t hilarious in that weird, askew way that the Coen Brothers always are: it’s that this time, even the funny bits are somehow pathetically sad. Why does the image of Llewyn on the subway with the Gorfeins’ cat — who got locked out of their apartment with him as he was leaving one morning after sleeping on their couch — make me cry? The cat is happy — it’s having an adventure. But Llewyn is dragging it around because he feels responsible for it, not because he particularly cares about it; he doesn’t even know the cat’s name. Is the cat his artistic ambition, something that’s become a burden, yet something he’s not quite ready to let go of… until he is? There’s another cat scene… two, actually. I won’t spoil. But you’ll know them. They’re like kicks in the gut. (Don’t worry: no cats were harmed in the making of this film.) Because they’re getting Llewyn closer to the moment when he decides that he’s done with folk music. Or that folk music is done with him.

This damn movie. It’s a treadmill of nostalgia and regret, and the horror of second-guessing oneself. There’s hints here of boats Llewyn just misses, and ships about to sail — like the folk explosion of the 1960s led by Bob Dylan — that maybe could make Llewyn, or maybe not. Because could Llewyn be like Jim and Jean, if that’s what success demands? Could he go electric like Dylan? Is he about to give up just before the thing would happen that would mean he wouldn’t have to give up? Hindsight can be a terrible thing.

This damn movie.

first viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival

see also: spoiler alert: what’s really going on in Inside Llewyn Davis

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Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
US/Can release: Dec 6 2013
UK/Ire release: Jan 24 2014

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated DJE: don’t just exist
MPAA: rated R for language including some sexual references
BBFC: rated 15 (contains strong language, sex references and implied hard drug use)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • bronxbee

    oh dear. this is a movie guaranteed to get you where you live.

  • I liked the movie and agree that the casting and the singing were both phenomenal. And it did feel quite a lot like the early ’60s, a time I marginally remember. It was a different sort of Coen Brothers movie – not as outrageous and weird as most (except for that road trip with John Goodman). It just seemed to lack…something, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. A few days later, we went and saw Nebraska, another very quiet, generally understated flick in B & W (except for June Squibb – WOW), and I liked that more than I expected to.

  • *Nebraska* shares a lot, spiritually, with this film. I’ll review it soon.

  • You’re right about that. Just like Her shares quite a lot with Don Jon besides Scarlett Johansen.

  • Sean Gasser

    I knew when I began reading you’d bring up the scenes with the cat/s (don’t take that the wrong way). Thinking about them now – it just kills me. I’m tearing up now sitting here in the coffee shop. And I don’t even particularly like cats.

  • Beowulf

    I think I’ll wait till Redbox has this. I was a big, big defender of “downer” (death, failure, disease, bad guys win) films when I was younger. As I get older I like depressing films less and less–no matter how well they’re made and how brilliant they are. It’s likely the Coen brothers will be allowed to make films as long as they wish to, providing they don’t make the fatal mistake of making an Art House film on a John Carter budget.

  • amanohyo

    What struck me in the movie was how self-sabotaging Llewyn is. He refuses royalties twice, his priorities are out of whack, he’s flakey, irresponsible, and completely uncompromising. You have to incredibly lucky, incredibly talented, or both to find success without compromise. His song and his voice never change literally and figuratively – “it was never new, it’s never gets old…” The magic of the film is that you like the guy while simultaneously recognizing that everything bad that happens to him is a result of his own blindness. He’s unwilling to change or dumb-down his positive qualities, but he’s also unwilling to acknowledge his own weaknesses and correct or compensate for his faults. His partner once did that for him; he won’t fill the hole left behind because it feels like a betrayal. He’s not a bad person – in his own head he’s clearly always trying to do the right thing, but I have a difficult time feeling sorry for a guy who refuses to mend or even see his own wounds.
    My question is what is he saying goodbye to at the end? The abuse inflicted by a selfish insensitive world… his artistic convictions… his dead partner? It could be any of a number of things. That line ended the movie on an upnote to me because it implies that he might be changing, and I don’t think the change will necessarily be the spirit-extinguishing sell out or surrender that he fears. The man’s going to go to sea, and when he returns, his songs and his voice might be stronger – at the very least they’ll be different. If you liked his original voice, obviously this is somewhat of a depressing prosepct. I think he needed to change, as long as it was on his own terms, but I seem to be projecting a lot of my own bias into my interpretation (easy to do here as Bronxbee already mentioned).

  • He refuses royalties twice

    I recall him refusing royalties only once, after recording “Please Mr Kennedy,” and that’s because he is desperate for money right then. He doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for it, which is the little tragedy of that subplot. (And then, worse, it turns out he didn’t need it quite so desperately after all.)

    When is the second refusal of royalties?

    The man’s going to go to sea

    No, he isn’t, because the paperwork he needed was thrown away in the garbage and he doesn’t have the money to replace them!

  • amanohyo

    The man cutting the check emphasizes the fact that he won’t receive royalties a second time – the tone of his voice almost imploring, “is this what you really want to do?” That repetition is the second time I was referring to.

    As for going to sea – he seems to be the kind of guy that would scrape the money together to go, but I mainly meant “going to sea” in a figurative sense as the relationships and assumptions he’s relied on drift out of reach. I don’t believe he’ll “drown” in the same way his partner did. He’s beaten up at the end, but still has a sense of humor in the final line.

    I do have a tendency to be unjustifiably optimistic though; when/if I experience any significant hardships, I’ll no doubt see the movie in a different light.

  • Well, but Llewyn is refusing royalties twice at the same moment for the same reason: he needs money *now.*

    This is one of those “it’s expensive to be poor” moments. He doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for a big payoff that might (or might not) come down the road.

  • amanohyo

    He seemed like such a survivor that I felt he would have been able to scrape together or borrow the money from another source. I guess unemployment in the early 60’s was pretty high – maybe it wouldn’t be that easy.

    I think the fundamental issue is that I’ve never been that desperate for money. I’ve been poor, jobless, I’ve spent nights on the street, I’ve worked minimum wage jobs – one year, I rented my friend’s living room couch for $100 a month (it was actually a great deal) so I’d have a place to sleep. In all that time, I’ve never been so hungry for money that I would have refused royalties (even from a piece that I thought sucked) just to make a quick buck.

    Now, I understand why he does it – it’s consistent with his character, and it seems like the only choice he can make at the time, but it isn’t, it’s a poor choice. It wouldn’t be a big deal on it’s own, but I feel as though a lot of his decisions (or lack thereof) are along the same lines. He’s carelessly “leaving the door open” in a figurative sense over and over, and the cat (a symbol of luck*) keeps getting away from him. He never finds it (it returns on its own), but he doesn’t let it run away a second time – another sign that he is changing as a person that leaves me with a hopeful feeling at the end.

    *Of course, the cat isn’t only a symbol of luck, it’s also meant to represent his hopes of becoming a solo musician (its “falseness” foreshadows his false hope).

    We’ll never agree on the degree of his culpability, but I think we agree that this is one of the Coens’ best movies (if not the best), and that the ambiguity of the plot and writing are handled with an admirable delicacy. I’ll definitely watch it again in a few years when I’m a little wiser.

  • nunyabunn

    amanhyo. Speaking for the sellouts and lovers of tapioca pudding of the world. “refuses to dumb-down his positive qualities.”

  • nunya

    by the way. poorly written article. All the little parenthesis you think are so crucial only screw up the flow of a sentence. Not sure how you are listed as a top critic. This site is not worth a pay wall in. the. least. Oh, and biased is spelled biased, not “biast.” If you were trying to be cute, you failed.

  • LaSargenta

    Out of context quote from a sentence.

    He’s unwilling to change or dumb-down his positive qualities, but he’s also unwilling to acknowledge his own weaknesses and correct or compensate for his faults

    See that “but”? That word in that place shows that the next clause is in opposition. In other words, the first clause is not about the faults of this character and the second clause is.

    Your accusation of amanohyo being some milquetoast conformist is specious.

  • conorcat

    I just finished watching this film for the second time. I will watch it for the third time six months from now. Sometimes a Coen Bros film requires multiple viewings in order to fully engage.

    That said, I found this to be their least satisfying outing since The Hudsucker Proxy, IMHO. The film is well crafted, without a doubt, but I simply could not bring myself to give a f*ck about Llewyn. Not matter how hard I tried, he sabotaged whatever empathy I generated. Which, I suppose, is what the Coens intended.

  • grayforester

    I have been in the position of choosing two hundred dollars now or nothing now and maybe something in the future, when packing my instrument and heading out of a recording studio. It is not EVER the wrong thing to take the now money, except the one time in a hundred when it is. When Llewyn takes the two hundred it is his least self destructive choice in the entire plot.

  • amanohyo

    I suppose you’re right, a little sure thing is worth a more than a big maybe, especially when all the big maybes in your life have evaporated into nevers. That said, the three greatest things to ever happen to me came about because I turned down a sure thing and piled a few modest hopes onto a big maybe (I know, battle of the vague anecdotes, although yours is admittedly more pertinent). That said, I have never been in his specific situation and you have, so I will happily defer to your opinion on this detail. I hope that we can agree that he makes quite a lot of self-destructive decisions.

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