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Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

January 6, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Inside Llewyn Davis PosterDuring the opening scene of Inside Llewyn Davis, we watch as the struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac) performs “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in front of a crowd.  The audience is allowed to experience the entirety of this melancholy song, and what we witness is someone who is broken, struggling to piece his life back together again.

The year is 1961, and Llewyn Davis is drifting through the burgeoning folk music scene of Greenwich Village, struggling to make a name for himself and find a place to crash for the night.  The latest cinematic triumph from the celebrated duo of Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that is sure to grow even more resonant with every repeated viewing.

After the death of his partner, Llewyn Davis is drifting between gigs and trying to make a name for himself as a solo act, left with barely enough money to survive from day to day.  But the bitterness of the season and his lack of a proper winter coat are just the beginning of his long list of disappointments.  At the start of the film, he wakes up in an apartment that belongs to his friends, and when he leaves in the morning their orange cat also slips out the door, an animal that he is tasked with caring for throughout his journey.

Although his friend Jean (Carey Muligan) is bitter towards him and possibly carrying his offspring, she reluctantly lets him stay the night when he agrees to help her deal with the pregnancy.  But he has to sleep on the floor, because the eternally optimistic Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) has already laid claim to the couch.  Jean’s naive husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) gets him a gig playing backup on the novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an upbeat tune that everyone sees as a potential breakout hit, except for Llewyn Davis himself.

The actual narrative of Inside Llewyn Davis takes place over about a week, with the supporting players dropping in and out of the story, and the title character appearing in practically every frame.  When he takes an impulsive road trip in the company of arrogant jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and the young poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), it’s a sequence born out of his desperation and a drive through classic Coen Brothers territory.  There is just so much beneath the surface, and thinking back over the experience, there isn’t a superfluous scene in the film.

We feel the frustration of Llewyn Davis, as the small choices he makes start to topple like dominoes and lead to even bigger challenges in his life.  The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnell is atmospheric and delves us right into the world of New York in the early 1960s, with the wintery landscapes of slush and snow providing a visual metaphor for the struggles of the character.  Even that cat, which has been the point of much publicity since the film first premiered at Cannes, could be seen as a representation of the title character.  Lost and drifting through life, at the mercy of whoever provides them with food and shelter, replaceable to everyone but those who know them best.

This is further evidenced by the circular storytelling.  Does the film start at the end and work its way to the beginning, or vice versa?  Perhaps the narrative is even more fractured than that, like a series of memories from a broken life.  Named after a record that appears in the film, Inside Llewyn Davis could also be compared to an album, a collection of songs that resonate on their own, but play beautifully as a whole.  The excellent soundtrack was produced by T. Bone Burnett, who previously worked with Joel and Ethan Coen on their equally memorable bluegrass masterpiece O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The songs are played in their entirety throughout Inside Llewyn Davis, beautifully performed musical interludes that help move the story forward.  Oscar Isaac brings profound depth to his character, delivering haunting renditions of the classic folk songs.  A performance of “The Death of Queen Jane” in front of manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is a perfect example of a scene that is carried by music, with the emotion of the song and his pitch perfect acting playing together in perfect unison.  The original novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” which was partially written by Justin Timberlake, is an absolute delight and provides one of the most absurdly funny scenes.

As these songs transport us into the world of the film, Inside Llewyn Davis blends filmmaking and music together in a really beautiful way that represents why both art forms are so important to me on such a deeply personal level.  The film feels like a great folk song, with lyrics that are contemplative and quietly affective, and some chord progressions that provide joy despite the sombre melody.  And just like a song, Inside Llewyn Davis has a cyclical narrative bookended by ingenious opening and closing scenes that make us want to immediately rewatch the film, allowing ourselves to experience the melancholy and bittersweet range of emotions all over again.

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