November 15, 2013

AFI FEST Film Review: “Inside Llewyn Davis”


INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS:  Buy A Ticket – 1960s Folk Music A La The Coens

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, which screened as the Closing Night presentation of the AFI Film Festival in advance of its regular run next month, is Joel and Ethan Coen in their enigmatically allegorical mode, but unlike its more overtly stylized predecessors Barton Fink and A Serious Man, the strangeness of Llewyn Davis sneaks up on you.  For quite a while, you could easily think that the Coens have merely devised a meticulously visualized recreation of the New York folk music scene circa 1961, as wry as it is loving.  Gradually, though, it becomes clear that the Coens have returned to themes of art and fate, and man’s helplessness before a possibly malevolent universe, that have long preoccupied them.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), like Barton Fink and Serious Man‘s Larry Gopnik before him, is a protagonist more hapless than he realizes, buffeted by his own weaknesses and by destiny.  Llewyn is a folk music singer at that moment in pre-Dylan pop culture history when Greenwich Village was lousy with them:  they could get gigs, albeit at hole-in-the-wall clubs where they had to share the bill and their pay came from baskets passed around the audience, and they could get record deals, but not count on selling many.  When we meet Llewyn, he’s barely making ends meet, a regular performer who’s essentially homeless, carrying around his possessions and spending his nights on the couches and floors of his friends and acquaintances.  Llewyn is a serious, struggling artist but also an arrogant dick, who treats the people in his life the way he treats his accommodations, barely remembered and easily discarded.

We come to learn that Llewyn used to be part of a duo, which fell apart under unfortunate circumstances, and it may be that part of the explanation for his behavior and attitude now is a reaction to that.  In any case, Llewyn is incapable of sustaining any kind of relationship, and he rootlessly makes the rounds, touching base with a singing duo of old friends Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), with the rising cowboy singer Al Cody (Adam Driver), with former professor Gorfein (Ethan Phillips) and his wife (Robin Bartlett), with his sister Joy (Jeanine Serralles) and others.  Llewyn may have impregnated Jean, who’s enraged at him but who might care about him more than she wants to admit; for a while, he half-heartedly tries to care for the Gorfeins’ cat.  Eventually he undertakes an emblematic journey of the era on the road, with jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and driver Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), but while he travels, he doesn’t really get anywhere.  Throughout, he almost always makes the worst, most careless decisions, and finds his life going down the same rungs of hell that other Coen heroes have descended, and while he mostly retains his aloof version of cool, he starts to reek of desperation.

Even if Inside Llewyn Davis had been no more than a vehicle to replicate that early 1960s music scene (one sequence has Llewyn, Jim and Al singing a now-heartbreakingly hilarious novelty song about space travel in the JFK era), it would be a jewel of a film.  This is the first time the Coens have worked with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and his desaturated images are extraordinary snapshots of the era come to life, both unerringly real and suffused with poetry.  The locations and sets (production design by Jess Gonchor) are similarly not just convincing but gorgeously grim; shots of insanely narrow apartment house corridors and stark roadside cafes can make you gasp with their stark beauty.  Working with executive music producer T. Boone Burnett (who served in a similar position on O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the Coens create a world banded by music, subtle distinctions within the folk genre serving to illuminate personality and degrees of seriousness.  As usual, the Coens handle the editing (under the pseudonym “Roderick Jaymes”) as well as writing and directing themselves, and the film has a brisk, no-nonsense pace.

Isaac never flinches from Llewyn’s infuriating selfishness, while suggesting that sorrow and pain may lie behind his peevish nature; he also has to sing several numbers in virtually unedited close-up, and does it all wonderfully.  Aside from Llewyn, all the roles are of anecdotal size, but the cast is letter-perfect.  Mulligan, playing a decidedly non-ethereal role for once, seems to relish every four-letter word (there are a lot of them) that comes out of Jean’s mouth, while Timberlake and Driver are fine co-vocalists for Llewyn.  F. Murray Abraham is marvelous in his small bit, as are Phillips, Bartlett, Hedlund and Serralles.  A special note must be made of John Goodman:  as fine and varied a career as that actor has had, no one has ever written for him the way the Coens do, and he’s spectacular once again as Llewyn’s funny and menacing road companion.

The Coens don’t make it easy for viewers, and Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t fated to be one of their more popular hits.  The script withholds much that other filmmakers would insist on showing at length, especially the details of an important off-screen death.  Llewyn is decidedly not a nice guy, and the film’s structure discourages easy digestion.  The ending is sufficiently allusive that I for one had a different (and more optimistic) interpretation of its meaning than most seemed to have after its inaugural showing at Cannes; without spoiling anything, I’d suggest you pay close attention to the details of its opening sequences.  Having said all that, Llewyn Davis has some huge laughs, and some moments of startling emotional clarity.  Most of all, it has the wondrous craftsmanship and artistry of the Coens, after all these years and all their success still absolutely devoted to their own vision of the world.  There’s no one in contemporary film quite like them.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."