Front Row at the Movies
“Inside Llewyn Davis”
Traces Folk Music’s Roots
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Remember that definition of a musician? The guy sleeping on your daughter’s couch.
That’s Llewyn Davis.
Or as a drug-addled jazz player says: “Folk singer? I thought you said you were a musician.”
Fan of folk music know that it got its true start in the clubs of Greenwich Village in the early sixties, a time just after Woody Guthrie and right before Bob Dylan.
In this new Coen brothers film -- “Inside Llewyn Davis,” now playing at the Tropic Cinema -- we are given a biographical snapshot of a folk singer named (you guessed it) Llewyn Davis.
The story is told entirely from his egocentric point of view. We meet the titular Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) onstage at the Gaslight singing a beautiful folk song. Next thing we know, Llewyn’s getting the crap beat out of him in the club’s back alley. Demonstrating early on that he just can’t catch a break.
Penniless, Llewyn sleeps on friends’ couches, travels with an orange tabby cat in search of its owners, and aimlessly pursues his lackluster musical career. The title comes from his album, which isn’t selling.
Oscar Isaac sings his own songs, as do his co-stars. Isaac’s sound is smooth and authentic. “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, “The Death of Queen Jane,” and “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” are memorable renditions. T-Bone Burnett (Oscar-winner for “Crazy Hearts”) arranged all the movie’s folk covers.
Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake are seen as folk duo Jean and Jim. They’re testing the waters of mainstream stardom, a life that Llewyn holds in little regard. He sees that dream of a house with a white picket fence as “rather sad.”
Garrett Hedlund plays a cool beat poet known as Johnny Five, Adam Driver gives us a cowboy singer called Al Cody, and Stark Sands delivers a simplistic folk singer named Troy Nelson (who is based on Tom Paxton).
Benjamin Pike makes an appearance as the young Bob Dylan.
F. Murray Abraham portrays a Chicago club owner (based on Albert Grossman, the man who discovered Peter, Paul and Mary.)
And Coen brothers regular John Goodman shows up in the personage of a blustery, coked-up, crutch-wielding jazz hipster named Roland Turner. He’s the one who challenges Llewyn’s claim of being a real musician, describing his talent as playing “three chords on an ukulele.”
While Joel and Ethan Coen may skip from genre to genre, their films often depict quirky outsiders. Llewyn Davis is such a complex and interesting outsider, albeit a character hard to love. He takes little responsibility for his life. His failures are self-made. You’ll find it difficult to root for this self-tortured, struggling artist.
In one scene, Llewyn Davis hits a cat with a car and watches it limp away. This is a mirror of his own existence, beaten up by still limping forward in pursuit of his ambition to become a successful folk singer. A dream that’s never quite fulfilled.
The cold, harsh winter in Greenwich Village emphasizes Llewyn’s weary struggle. Figuratively, he’s been left out in the cold. But it also reflects the tone of this movie, bleak and melancholy, deliberately gloomy.
A failed folk singer, Llewyn Davis is pretty much in the same place at the end of the movie as at the beginning.
That’s the Coen brothers’ existential message, but it’s not a very satisfying one.
Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel masterfully captures the dark and grey tones of the New York scene. Nominated for an Oscar, he was a last-minute replacement for Roger Deakins who usually shoots the Coens’ movies but was tied up filming the James Bond film, “Skyfall.”
The film was inspired by the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk titled “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” however Llewyn's story is mostly fiction.
Even so, this is more of a moody, 105-minute character sketch than a movie. While Llewyn’s faux-odyssey has a great Mobius-like symmetry in its telling, there’s no transformation of the main character. In the end, the film goes nowhere. He ends up where he started.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is at best a soulful and poetic portrait of a disgruntled, unyielding man and his music. But it’s slightly out of tune.