Inside Llewyn Davis
With Spoilers (I guess…)
Review by Jim Reed
Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece of restrained filmmaking and ambiguous character study. It is the Coen Brothers’ best film since 2007s No Country for Old Men (with apologies to A Serious Man and True Grit, which were both tremendous in their own right), and is perhaps one of the most beautifully photographed films of the year. It has tragically only received two Academy Award nominations this year, for Sound Mixing and Bruno Delbonnel’s Cinematography. I will expound later on why I believe this is a tragedy.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of a week in the life of folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), as he traverses the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961. A number of problems befall Llewyn, who is stuck bumming from couch to couch in search recognition for first solo album after his former partner committed suicide. He finally takes the step to take his album to Bud Grossman (the brilliant Oscar-winner, F. Murray Abraham), a music bigwig in Chicago. There is nothing to this point in the film that causes us to like Llewyn, but we are hopeful (maybe?) that things will turn around for him. Instead he has one meeting with Bud, accepts defeat, and turns back around. The Coen’s do not attempt to solve any of Llewyn’s problems, or any of the problems that the audience has with Llewyn, because Llewyn does not attempt to solve his own problems. He embarks on a journey a third of the way through the film, gives up, and leaves us grasping for any moment of salvation as we watch Llewyn systematically throw everything away right up to the brilliant ending. Thus we are left with a film and character that is difficult to interpret.
There are a number of interpretive keys one could use to make sense of a movie that does not attempt to explain itself. One of these keys is to understand the narrative in terms of the utter injustice of life. The Coen’s prove once again that they are masters of the mundane moment. But there is something mysterious and (I’m reluctant to say this but) holy about the everydayness of Llewyn’s life. The idiom “S#!t happens” is appropriate in Llewyn’s case, though not entirely so. Llewyn is particularly adept at creating his own mess, because he has the classic dual-threat combination of self-importance and self-loathing.
Because of this he shuts the door (quite literally one time on the cat he is taking care of) on every opportunity at life, vitality, and meaning. The only person in the film who does not want to see Llewyn succeed is Llewyn. He goes on a brief journey, and unlike the cat who finds his way back home, completely gives up. He is resigned to live a life that is, by his own admission, sad and square, because that is what he has decided he is. Llewyn is an entirely unlikeable character, and yet he stays with me. Not necessarily as a cautionary tale on self-defeating behavior, nor the pointlessness and arbitrary nature of life, but perhaps because Llewyn does to me what I so badly wanted to do to him: Grab him by the shoulders and shout, “Don’t you realize how valuable your life is, and that there are people who care about you?!”
I wonder whether the film means anything, and perhaps it doesn’t, but the film lingers with me, crawling under my skin and working its way to the seat of my soul, making its home in me in a way that gives the film profound meaning. The Coen Brothers do not spoon feed their audience. We are expected to be active viewers, as well as, I believe, participants. We participate in the sense that we are forced to make the film our companion. I don’t know whether there is any “getting it” in the sense of standing beyond the film to observe and dissect it objectively. I think, like any good parable, this film is best understood by absorption. We have to allow the images, sounds, and feelings to sit with us, and potentially allow them to change us—if ever so slightly. This is ultimately what makes it a brilliant film: the ability to mean nothing and everything in constant cycle.
And this is why the Academy so royally screwed up. Especially considering they only nominated nine films when they could have nominated ten. (Spit!) Inside Llewyn Davis is tremendous, and absolutely one of the best films of the year. If you intend to see some of the Oscar contenders, don’t leave this one out. Go see Inside Llewyn Davis.
Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carrie Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman.