December 14, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis (12/14/2013)

Lettergrade: B-

I didn't enjoy Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis much while watching it the other week, but I've thought about it a lot in the days since and might want to give it another try somewhere down the line. A number of my friends who have seen it as well seem to have similarly mixed feelings about what it is and what it does.

I was a bit surprised that my initial reaction was so unenthusiastic… I love the subject material - that of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village circa 1961, just before performers like Bob Dylan really broke out - but I guess I was frustrated that the movie kind of went around and around in an oblique sort of way and ultimately didn't seem to add up to much.

Llewyn, played by Oscar Isaac, is kind of an unpleasant guy... He used to be part of a duo that recorded a moderately successful album back in the day, but he's on his own now and floundering. His attempt at a solo record (also the title of the movie) isn't selling, and he's basically homeless, spending his nights on the sofa of whichever friend he's pissed off the least recently. There's a scene early in the movie where Carey Mulligan, playing 1/2 of a rival folk duo, tells our title character that he keeps falling into the same shitty patterns and cycling through the same self-destructive routines because he's not interested in changing much about who he is. The movie demonstrates repeatedly, in cringe-inducing, heart-breaking ways, that this is true. Maybe the picture isn't meant to be much more than a portrait of a time and a place, and a never-will-be who is drowning in it?

On a plot level, there isn't much to the movie, I suppose… Llewyn plays gigs and makes increasingly poor decisions. The midsection of the film follows Llewyn as he takes an agonizing road trip to Chicago in order to audition for a club-owner and successful artist manager played by F. Murray Abraham.

The interesting character mysteries to unlock in this picture all happen at the edges of the frame or off-camera altogether… Without giving much away, Mulligan's "Jean" and Llewyn have a heated exchange early in the movie, but after he returns from his trip, we can perhaps piece together that she did something in order to get him another chance to possibly succeed - a chance he promptly blows, in part because he's upset when he puts together what she's done.

While I appreciate movies that force the audience to do a bit of thinking, I must admit that this film plays a little too coy with some of these elements for me to quite grasp onto what the movie is getting at. I somewhat felt that 2009's A Serious Man, with its bizarre, out-of-left-field ending, sort of did the same thing, as did their award-winning No Country For Old Men to a much lesser degree in 2007. Now I enjoyed watching those earlier two movies immensely, but if you strapped me to a chair and forced me to explain to you what they might be about in the end, I'm not sure I could come up with a satisfactory answer for you.

Another thing I'll mention, which I feel might contain the key to unlocking what the Coens were trying to do here, is that at one point, the film is deliberately confusing about the order in which certain scenes take place. Or to put it another way, you unexpectedly come upon a scene that the movie had already shown much earlier, but it feels very different because you now have the full weight of the rest of the movie to give it some context. It's unclear where Llewyn's week begins and ends because it's all a big cycle he keeps running through repeatedly, and he keeps winding up exactly where he's already been.

Toward the end, Llewyn gives a heartbreaking performance of "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)" in front of a live audience. We've heard that song a few times earlier in the picture… First at the beginning, as Llewyn rides the subway back to Greenwich Village after staying the night at the apartment of some friends… Unbeknownst to us at that time, we're hearing the duet version that he recorded with his partner for their failed album. Later, Llewyn is asked to perform the same song at a dinner party, but gets upset when someone else tries to join in. Finally, we get to the climatic third time… another of the movie's repeated patterns and cycles. Llewyn might not be in a terribly different place when you leave him than he was when you first meet him… he's still a pretty awful, self-destructive prick toward the picture's end, but after spending a few nights on sofas with him and taking a road trip through the hellishly frozen midwest, you walk away understanding a bit more about the intensity and feeling and pain behind his weathered voice.

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