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Inside Llewyn Davis

December 20, 2013
Inside Llewyn Davis

Many of the Coen brothers’ films feature excellent soundtracks. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the old-timey music was a key plot point. So it’s not surprising that they’d eventually turn out a movie about a musician like Inside Llewyn Davis. Also not surprising: it’s a great film with a quirky, idiosyncratic feel all to its own.

It’s 1961, and Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer. Inside Llewyn Davis is his first solo album. He used to be part of Timlin & Davis, but Timlin took a header off the George Washington Bridge, despite the Brooklyn Bridge’s history as the site for that sort of thing. Davis is a really good musician, but left to his own devices he plays what he wants to play rather than what audiences want to hear. He’s stuck inside his own — inside Llewyn Davis’ — head.

The film is one of the Coen’s less-accessible productions, though this isn’t a bad thing. Anyone can jump onto Raising Arizona or O Brother for a fun ride without much deeper thought, but Inside Llewyn Davis — like The Man Who Wasn’t There or A Serious Man — wears its formalist heart on its sleeve. Just as many folk songs end with a repetition of the first verse, now put into a new context by the rest of the song, the film starts at the end before jumping back a week to see how Llewyn got there, laid out flat in an alleyway behind MacDougal Street.

Isaac is the soul of this film, carrying us from one scene to the next as the rest of the cast pass by around him, whether on their way up or down. Impressively, he also performs all of Llewyn’s songs live for the cameras, and he does a fantastic job of it. With T-Bone Burnett heading up the music production, the cast turns out a great album of early ’60s folk music.

Llewyn lives on a sequence of couches in Greenwich Village, like that of fellow folk musicians Jim and Jean Berkey (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan). But Jean’s not happy with Llewyn because she’s pregnant, and as much as she wants to have Jim’s kid, she can’t bear the thought of Llewyn’s, so she demands he arrange for an abortion. Luckily, he knows a doctor from a previous accident, but there’s still the money he doesn’t have.

Llewyn’s agent isn’t much help, and he’s not exactly close with his sister out in Queens — two more bridges he’s burned — but Jim turns up a quick session gig, for which Llewyn takes a quick check rather than a share of the royalties. Another session musician (Adam Driver) puts Llewyn up for the night and tells him about a jazzman (John Goodman) and his “valet” (Garrett Hedlund) driving out to Chicago where the famous agent Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) has his club. And so Llewyn goes west, only to return.

Over and over, Llewyn thinks in the short term, reacting to the momentary situation without taking the time to lay the groundwork for longer-term plans. Little of what he does is actively wrong or mean, but most of it is selfish and inwardly-directed. Is it any wonder he finds himself retreading the same ground over and over? The film’s flashback structure does double duty as a circle, bringing Llewyn back where he started. We, sitting outside, have the perspective to know what’s going wrong, but on the inside, ignorant of his own history, Llewyn is condemned to repeat it.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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