Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman,
Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, Adam Driver, Max Casella, F. Murray Abraham
Review By Greg Klymkiw
When I first saw Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis, I must have been out of my mind. A few elements rubbed me the wrong way and I felt they kept the movie from achieving the kind of greatness I wanted it to have. Furthermore, though I moronically acknowledged the picture was full of individual moments of greatness (including one extended sequence in the middle of the film that's as great as anything the Brothers have done), I still kept thinking the movie had something wrong with it - this in spite of the fact that at the time I found it to be the most entertaining movie I'd seen in ages.
Then, it happened. I could not get the picture out of my head. The disarming tale of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a broke, down-on-his-luck, couch-surfing Greenwich Village folk singer, dreaming of hitting the big-time, kept haunting me. Not only does the hero embark upon a very strange and telling odyssey to Chicago, he also loses a cat.
What was not to like? Nothing, it seemed.
Shot in a gorgeous almost-semi-monochrome colour by Bruno Delbonnel, vaguely inspired by the real-life late folk singer Dave Van Ronk and his posthumous biography "The Mayor of MacDougal Street" and replete with terrific musical numbers, mostly shot "live" and created in collaboration with the great T-Bone Burnett, the film compellingly plunged us into the world of Greenwich Village folksingers in the period just prior to Bob Dylan arriving on the scene and taking the world by storm.
Llewyn Davis is a serious-minded folksinger (and ultimately nothing like the gruff real-life Van Ronk) who's had to go solo since his partner in a performing duo took a dive off the (un-romantic, though oddly apt) George Washington Bridge and ended his already short life far too soon. Llewyn is broke and he hardly makes anything resembling a living as a folksinger. He hails from a working class background and is encouraged by his older sister to go back into the merchant navy. Llewyn will have none of this, though, and he continues to play whatever gigs he gets, surfs from couch to couch and borrows money left, right and centre.
He finds out his old girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant. Llewyn dallied with her behind the back of her current paramour Jim (Justin Timberlake) and now she wants an abortion since she's mortified that the baby growing in her belly might belong to the layabout itinerant she's come to despise. Llewyn is an old hand at abortions. Much of the money he earns is to pay for the extrication of unwanted spawn from his seed.
Llewyn also loses a cat belonging to a middle-aged academic Jewish couple who kindly provide him with occasional meals and a couch. The search for this cat becomes easily as obsessive as his search for fame. In fact, Llewyn's tale becomes fully anchored when he hitches a ride with two musicians (John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund) to Chicago so he can audition with a famed folk impresario (F. Murray Abraham, who proves again what a great actor he is and how utterly misused he's been in so many films unworthy of his talents).
It's this odyssey, involving a variety of bizarre conversations, strange goings-on and several sightings of the cat he's lost that, as mentioned above, is not only on a par with the very best work created by the Brothers, but serves as the true core of the film and as such, occasionally feels like a film unto itself.
So what was irking me about Inside Llewyn Davis? Well, I'm almost ashamed to admit this, but I must. The title character seemed like a major league loser - an offensively self-absorbed asshole who treats women like shit, using them as receptacles for his imperfect spunk, a bitter, bullying dipsomaniac who hurls invectives at those who can't possibly defend themselves against the force of his bile, an egomaniacal asshole who fucks up every opportunity to actually make a living as a musician in pursuit of a fame he might not even deserve and as such, is continually broke and in debt because of his pathetic "I will not sell out, attitude".
Nothing goes right for this loser and it's all his own fault.
This is a character I'd have normally loved.
God knows, I'm the last person in the world to crap on a film's character for being an asshole. So much of the 70s cinema I love is bulging with such characters, but on my first viewing I felt the stakes were so much higher than Llewyn's, the darkness those other characters were drawn to seemed more flamboyantly seedy (think James Toback's central characters in Fingers and The Gambler), that I found it borderline intolerable that the Coen Boys were rubbing my nose in the shit of someone so pretentious and inconsequential.
A loser folk singer? How could such a character appeal to me? Well, a lot really, but I was having a major brain fart the first time I saw the picture. In the days and weeks that followed, I could not only not get Inside Llewyn Davis out of my head, but the odyssey sequence I loved so much would have had no resonance without everything I idiotically couldn't stand about the film on the first go-round. In fact, the moments of humanity in the film wouldn't have had I the power they do. (A scene between Llewyn and his dementia-riddled father is not only worthy of the Coens' best work, but feels like a scene that could have been directed by John Ford if he'd been from their generation.)
I surmised that maybe, just maybe, this was a film that was really about the universal greatness inherent in those who've left their alternately rich and repressive hometowns behind for a better shot at making their dreams come true. This is certainly not unlike Bob Dylan, the Jew from Dinkytown in the land of Swedish milkmaids and stalwart car salesmen and Holiday Inn buffets, who appears briefly as a character at the end of the movie, signalling the beginning of his fame, the eventual acceptance of folk music in the larger world and sadly, one in which the film's title character would never achieve.
The movie is about fame as much as it is about talent. It's about having to know repression, real repression, to create great work that will resonate far beyond an insular community, even in a big city - one that Llewyn embraces more than he thinks he does. Maybe it's all about needing to understand - truly understand - what's both insular and heavenly in the same breath, hidden amongst those big open midwestern skies that look down upon the rolling prairies - a land that needed to be tilled by those without imagination, so that those with imagination could take what nurturing they needed before spilling out into the wider world.
When we discover that Llewyn has an illegitimate child from a few years earlier who doesn't even know he exists, we think that maybe his child, growing up in the middle of Buckeye-Fuck, Ohio will have the stuff Llewyn can't make work for himself.
The film is finally as sad as it is both joyous and funny.
Maybe, just maybe, Inside Llewyn Davis is the closest we'll come in this day and age to a film cinematically capturing the final words of Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio wherein he writes:
"The young man’s mind was carried away by his growing passion for dreams. One looking at him would not have thought him particularly sharp. With the recollection of little things occupying his mind he closed his eyes and leaned back in the car seat. He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out of the car window the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood."Yeah, Inside Llewyn Davis was not worthy of my initial kvetching. It's a great film and soon after that first viewing I could hardly wait to see it again.
And again. And yet, again.
And now, released on the Criterion Collection, the again and again and again keeps multiplying exponentially.
I love it when I'm occasionally wrong. It makes the right so much richer.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** Five Stars
The truly monumental director-approved Criterion Collection release of Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Blu-Ray/DVD keepers of the new millennium. In addition to an astounding 4K digital transfer with a 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray, the disc features a new audio commentary featuring Robert Christgau, David Hajdu and Sean Wilentz, a new conversation between filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and the Coen brothers about the evolution of their approach, a forty-three-minute documentary on the making of the film, a new conversation between music producer T Bone Burnett and the Coens about folk music (with illustrations by Drew Christie), a new piece about the early sixties Greenwich Village folk scene featuring music writer and historian Elijah Wald, a short film by Dan Drasin documenting a 1961 clash between folk musicians and police in Washington Square Park, several trailers, an essay by film critic Kent Jones and the pièce de résistance of all the extras, Another Day, Another Time, a 101-minute concert documentary celebrating the music of Inside Llewyn Davis, featuring Joan Baez, Marcus Mumford, Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch, Jack White and many others.
A SPECIAL NOTE FROM THE 2013 THEATRICAL REVIEW
Albert "Al" Milgrom is the immortal nonagenarian gentleman scholar and godfather of cinema in the Coen Brothers' hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota and they've paid a lovely tribute to one of the most beloved and important champions of film as art in America by having Adam Driver play a folk singer with the surname of Milgrom, though the character has already chosen a far more goyische stage name Al Cody. My jaw dropped when this near-hidden tidbit is revealed. Anyone who knows or loves The Great Man of Minneapolis Movie Mania will, no doubt, be infused with a warmth for the Brothers remembering and honouring a guy who's inspired more cineastes per capita than anyone in the U.S. of A. Milgrom has long been a fixture on the international film festival circuits and in Toronto during TIFF, he can often be seen furiously riding between his preferred digs at the Downtown YMCA and various screening venues on a rented bicycle. Earlier this year, he nearly killed himself whilst taking a horrific tumble during the Berlinale and only this past summer was returned from Germany to his beloved Minneapolis to continue his recovery. Way to go, Al.
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