Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham
Director of Photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Edited by Roderick Jaynes
Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Rating: 9,5 out of 10
(some minor spoilers)
Inside Llewyn Davis is a somewhat perfect movie for what it is doing. It stars Oscar Isaac in an amazing performance as Llewyn Davis, a musician, and his struggles. The Coen brother turn this story into something so bigger than this, with their talented eye for interesting and weird characters, their skill for filmmaking and, maybe most of all, their ability as great writers. Their dialogue is so brilliant here, so thought-out, the structure of the story seems so random but makes perfect sense if you think about for a little bit and that alone, their knack for activating your brain, is what makes a good Coen movie like this one so special. And Oscar Isaac is so very good, incredibly good. And Carey Mulligan in her unusual but too short role. Oh well, and everyone else.
Llewyn Davis is on an odyssey in this movie, symbolically and literally. He had a moment of fame with his musical partner who killed himself. Davis now wants to start his own career but only with one condition: he won’t compromise his art. He wants to be recognized for what he is able to do with his talent, not for what he is hired to do. It’s not about money (though he is constantly broke and looking for ways to get money) and not even fame. It’s about people realizing that he is good and allowing him to do that as long as he wants. It is every artist’s dream.
There are two problems with this dream. The first one is his arrogance. Because he considers himself to be very talented, he is unwilling to see the talents of others. It’s interesting, because in a way we can understand his snobbism but throughout the movie he starts going too far. There is this amazing scene where his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake, really good) invites him to a recording session so he can make some money. They sing this somewhat ridiculous song and Davis says to Jim, as if it was the most obvious thing: “I’m really happy for the gig, but who… who wrote that?” Jim’s response of course is: “I did.” (and I don’t think anyone could make a better face of feeling hurt than Timberlake in this moment) To Davis, his worldview doesn’t really include that someone might disagree. He doesn’t think of it as his opinion, but as fact, totally ignorant of what others think. The movie makes a point, I think, that he never lets go of this ignorance and arrogance, even right to the very last scene, making this less of a typical journey.
But his other problem has nothing to do with his personality or his talent (which is clearly there), but from the world he lives in. Having tried his luck in New York, he travels to Chicago (in scenes that feel like he is going through a hellish nightmare of a road trip) to give it one last try and sing to a producer. Those travel scenes (with John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund) are essential because they show how desperate Davis is. The trip is terrible, when he arrives he has no place to sleep, it’s freezing winter and finally he arrives at this desolate, dark club to sing for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, showing how much you can do with a little scene like that). Grossman asks him to play “something from Inside Llewyn Davis” (the name of Davis’ solo album) and that is what this moment is about: Davis basically offers his soul to Grossman (and again, not so much for money per se). We get the full song, with few cuts and slow zooming at Davis’ and Grossman’s faces, giving us a very intense moment. The song deals with birth and death, increasing the emotional intensity even more (especially knowing about Davis’ personal life at the time). It’s hard not to be moved by his singing. Grossman doesn’t blink, doesn’t move a facial muscle, waits for some seconds and just says: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” That sentence sums up this world, this culture, perfectly.
Grossman goes on to say that Davis doesn’t “connect” with his audience, thereby combining his arrogance with his unwillingness to compromise. If he opened himself up to a musical partner, to different, pre-written songs, to the opinion of others, he would probably be successful. One reason he ultimately can’t do that is his arrogance, but also his insistence that he can only be an artist, that he can only be himself, if he doesn’t succumb to commercialism, to orthodoxy. It is an interesting conflict that most people don’t even suffer from anymore because our culture teaches them that conformism is the only right way. For everyone else it’s hard not to become arrogant, because once you get the feeling that everyone else is doing something wrong, by selling themselves, by giving up, it is not easy to not look down upon them. And also not easy then to be excluded. On the other hand, Davis’ problem could be solved by opening up himself up to others, to work within a community and not to be alone on a stage. That then again is something we get instilled from our culture too and we can only try our best to overcome that.
(this is just a fraction of what this movie does, so don’t think that is all it is about, it’d be worth a really deep and long analysis)