Film Review – Inside Llewyn Davis
Inside Llewyn Davis
“We create our own unhappiness,” Willie Nelson says and, “the purpose of suffering is to help us understand we are the ones who cause it.” This isn’t an idea unique to Nelson – it’s the core of Buddhist philosophy – but the quote comes from an apt source, for the titular hero of the Coen brothers’s new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, like Nelson, is a folk singer. Unlike Nelson, he’s an insufferable jerk. The film follows Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) on an odyssey of self-discovery as he wanders from couch to couch and venue to venue, attempting to hit it big as a solo act while still maintaining his “authenticity.” In many ways this new film feels like an extension of O Brother, Where Art Thou? before it: they both revel in folk music, follow the protagonist on an epic Homeric journey, contain scene stealing performances by John Goodman, and are wildly funny to boot.
The film opens to Llewyn on stage at the Gaslight Café in 1961 singing a soulful rendition of “Hang Me.” It is a beautiful introduction to an ugly character. But we learn of his ugliness soon enough. Later, he sits at a table in the same café with his best friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). When Jim and Jean’s friend (Stark Sands) takes the stage and begins to perform, Jim leans over to Llewyn. “He’s great, isn’t he?” Llewyn is taken aback and asks, “Is he?” After which he wonders aloud to Jim, “Does he serve a higher purpose?” Jim leans away then and returns his concentration to the performance.
Llewyn throughout the film flings such barbs at anybody in close vicinity and Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn perfectly as the self-aggrandizing Artist conflicted between staying true to his music and being immortalized by signing a record contract with a major label. His couch wandering is largely due to the fact that with every niceness proffered, he returns only vitriol and anger. He makes the hostess of a party cry, he belittles his sister, he heckles a truly authentic folk singer, he gets his married friend pregnant and he loses a good friend’s cat. When meeting with Jean at a café to talk about the disastrous pregnancy, he says he feels bad about the cat. “That’s what you feel bad about,” she asks.
And yet, everybody eventually welcomes him back. Perhaps it’s because they sense he’s not consciously mean. His comments aren’t meant to actively hurt. He doesn’t even really think about them. It’s a reflexive part of his nature. To him, these zings are cold truth rather than subjective opinion. He moves through his life with little regard to the consequences of his actions. Or perhaps it’s because they realize this spiky nature is the outward result of his inner turmoil. Not only is he wavering between the ideas of selling out and staying authentic, he’s struggling with a sense of failure while still grieving over the sudden death of his musical partner through which he’d gained some popularity and success. Not huge success, mind you, but they’d cut a record, signed with a small label and had sold a few copies. It is a tribute to Isaac’s performance that while there is some schadenfreude in seeing him suffer – getting his just desserts – there is also an underlying strain of sympathy that connects you to and grounds the character.
Much like their previous foray into the roots of American folk music, the songs in this film are integral and essential. They work to balance the film in several ways. They are the levity that keeps the film afloat. While there are some great jokes in this film, it is also very melancholic and tragic. With the exception of Marge Gunderson in Fargo, the Coen’s have rarely made a protagonist or anti-hero who doesn’t go through a great deal of suffering, who isn’t in some way a loser, and Llewyn is no exception. If the film consisted solely of Llewyn’s caustic personality and its karmic repercussions, this would be a grim film indeed. But the songs liven it up and bring in a beauty and light. They also exist to showcase Llewyn’s abilities. It helps us understand the forgiveness given him by the characters that surround him, because once he takes the stage and opens up, everything is laid bare and we see him as the truly talented singer he is. He could make it, we think. He might just pull this off.
And on his Homeric journey, he does take his foray across the river Styx and into the underworld in an attempt to achieve immortality. He rides along with a handicapped jazz musician, Roland Turner, played hilariously by John Goodman, to Chicago to meet Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) at the Gate of Horn. Music industry mogul Bud Grossman is there to tell him whether his dreams are true or false. He can make or break Llewyn. And the climactic scene where Llewyn plays for Grossman, and Grossman delivers his verdict is understated yet brilliant.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a pitch-perfect period piece, a hilarious comedy, an absorbing musical feast and a shattering character study of a struggling artist coming to terms with the knowledge that he is the source of his own suffering. It is yet another winning entry from two of America’s best living directors. The Coen’s certainly have their misfires (Intolerable Cruelty and Ladykillers, for instance) but when they get it right, damned if they don’t hit it out of the park. This is a nearly perfect film and without a doubt one of the best of the year.