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Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

Review by Dan Geddes

Llewyn’s (Oscar Isaac) opening folk performance at The Gaslight Cafe in 1961 sets the tone for a surprisingly non-violent Coen brothers’ movie about a struggling singer in the early folk scene in New York.

Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t seem like a Coen Brothers movie at first. We don’t see many familiar Coen players (except John Goodman), and they didn’t use their usual cinematographer. But when Llewyn Davis relentlessly suffers small disasters as in the Coens’ A Serious Man (a Book of Job for our time), we see the Coens’ fingerprints.

To himself Llewyn’s life may seem like a plaything of an unyielding universe. However, we easily see the dramatic irony that Llewyn is the author of his own bad luck. In one week, Llewyn lives through a diverse set of misfortunes, many of them he incites. He knows he’s a gifted singer and guitarist, but the other people in his life are less impressed by this. He has no income and is sleeping on other people’s couches. While his friends and family acknowledge his talent, he says exactly the wrong thing to almost everyone, revealing his disdain for their “normal” (inartistic) life-styles.

Llewyn fancies himself a folk purist who produces plaintive songs superior to the jingly crowd-pleasers of his friends, the folk duo Jim and Jean. But he’s not above sleeping on their couch or sleeping with her. Llewyn and Jean have been having an extra-marital affair. Early on Jean tells him she’s pregnant, and she denounces him as an anti-Midas who turns everything he touches into shit. This is news to us, but the events of the next week of Llewyn’s life prove her right.

His uncompromising attitude leads to friction with almost everyone in his life: Jim and Jean, his working class sister, an aging jazz player (John Goodman) with whom he rides to Chicago, the owner of the Gaslight, a middle-aged academic couple who lets him crash at their place, etc. Llewyn is outspoken and burns many bridges.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a portrait of an artist who will (probably) never get discovered, or make a living from his art. He seems good enough as a performer, but he lacks the special charisma of a lead player. He recorded a respected album with his former singer partner, whose departure is lamented by many in the movie, and about whom Llewyn is especially sensitive.

Llewyn is now trying to have a solo career. He plays at the Gaslight to warm applause. He even gets a supporting gig on a silly recording with Jim. (After Llewyn takes cash over royalties for the recording, it is suggested the song will become a hit). His career isn’t going well. His producer returns a box of his solo albums that never sold.

He travels to Chicago to meet a music impresario, Grossman (the same last name as Dylan’s first manager), whom Llewyn is hoping to impress. Grossman doesn’t think he’s a star, but he offers him a gig in a Peter, Paul and Mary-like trio (though he asks him to stay out of the sun, just as Albert Grossman had asked the real Mary Travers). Does Llewyn have enough pragmatism to take the gig? Or will Llewyn realize that his artistic ambitions will not pan out and return to his father’s trade of sailing in the merchant marine?

Llewyn is an artist manqué, and the Coen brothers can relate. We can imagine the young Coens’ being as disdainful of “ordinary” people as Llewyn. After all, the Coens often seem to invite their audience to laugh at the idiocy of many of their characters. The Coens realize how lucky they were to earn their artistic freedom early on.

One moral of the story is: to become a working artist, you need to make compromises. As much as Llewyn seems to sabotage himself, the Coens suggest that luck is also a major factor in breaking through as an artist. Despite all his sufferings, he still has a chance to impress a New York Times critic watching the show at the Gaslight.

The audience’s awareness of the imminent coming of Bob Dylan (he also played at the Gaslight at this time) adds even more irony to Llewyn’s sufferings. It is suggested that Llewyn could have been the next Dylan: his Welsh name (Llewyn even sounds like Dylan), his scruffy folk purity, his couch-surfing, and even his barbed disdain for the less talented. Llewyn (Juilliard-trained Oscar Isaac) actually sounds better as a singer and guitarist than Dylan. But Dylan had great charisma as a performer. He knew how to draw attention and feed his eventual stardom (even his harmonica bridge attracted attention). Then he became the most important song-writer of his time, and the traditional folk songs that Llewyn plays lost their currency after a whole generation of singer-songwriters moved in Dylan’s wake.

Inside Llewyn Davis shows the life of a working artist from his own perspective (as in Barton Fink), but with a trail of woe that suggests A Serious Man. The folk music scene represents the next generation of the music seen in O Brother, Where Art Thou?  The Coens had depicted a New York beatnik bar from the late 1950s in The Hudsucker Proxy. Here their inspiration is the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The Greenwich Village settings (and scenes further afield) are beautifully realized.

The music (sung by the actors themselves) shows the Coens’ appreciation for the music of the time (and wisdom to let their longtime music producer T. Bone Burnett direct the score). Oscar Isaac turns in a great performer, both as an actor and a singer.

The movie’s circular structure is pleasing and clarifies some mysteries, but leaves other things unclear.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautifully rendered movie about a struggling artist unwilling to compromise. It probably carries more poignancy for those who have had artistic ambitions than for those who have been ill-treated by such would-be artists.

See also

The Big Lebowski, Fargo and Burn After Reading

“Inside Llewyn Davis: a masterpiece 'anti-musical' from the Coen brothers” (The Guardian)