“Inside Llewyn Davis” is vintage Coen Brothers
Real musicians don’t drag race Lamborghinis through the streets in Miami. Most of them take the bus and if they’re arrested for being drunk in public, a $2,500 bond is nearly impossible to pay.
That there was a time when folk music, with its slow ballads and intricate harmonies, was a popular form is hard to believe in the days of Ke$ha and Pitbull.
I’d take the occasional overwrought lyric and pretentious sweater any day over the current vapid party atmosphere that dominates Top 40 radio. Perhaps such an opinion makes me seem older than I am. Perhaps I’m just as old as I seem.
Perhaps “Inside Llewyn Davis” reminds me of what I want music to be. There was certainly a time when I fantasized about being a traveling balladeer. “Inside Llewyn Davis” gives some insight into what that might look like.
The latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen is distinctly theirs, with their signature humor dotting the script, which is peppered with quiet songs and a soft melancholy. Each scene carries the cold wind of a dirty street, the loneliness of living on the fringe, and the strangeness of the people that occupy the edges.
The film follows a young folk musician through a few turbulent few days in New York City in the 1960s. Although, as the film goes on, I got the impression that given the short time we spend with Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), these days aren’t any more or less turbulent than usual.
Davis occupies the world of the struggling artist, but the struggle seems more important to the character than the artist does. We view such people as burning on the inside, passionate and glowing, eager to let themselves out into the world. Maybe Llewyn Davis started out that way.
We meet him towards the end of his career. Despite being young, he has burned out. We see that there is no shortage of talent in the Village. It’s bustling with bright and wide-eyed performers, looking to share in the unique culture of authenticity that all styles initially possess. Davis has been in the scene too long and the stitching is beginning to show.
He’s not especially endearing; he’s just a man with a guitar try to survive, trying to put away the inevitable pull of a working-class background and ever-encroaching end of an ordinary life. It takes the careful eye of the Coens to make such a character compelling.
My honest belief is that everyone, no matter who they are, has a compelling story to tell. Anyone can be the focus of an Oscar-quality film if the writing and directing are there. Llewyn Davis could be any number of aspiring musicians and jaded performers that haunted the back alleys of New York City during the folk era. In fact, he most likely is all of them combined.
He’s a story of sadness and regret, of poor behavior and poor choice, of unassailable courage and broken potential. The audience identifies with the loneliness, with the heartache, that rests within Llewyn Davis, despite his obvious faults and sometimes grating personality.
Not much happens in the film, at least not much at seems important to us. But much happens internally, betrayed by small facial tics and powerful emotional outbursts. Of particular note are the musical performances. They are poignant and capable, but underneath the correct notes and the poise on stage, we can sense the absence of honest feeling needed for Davis to be truly successful. Even with his genuine talent, he doesn’t have the depth of an artist.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of the best films this year, but is only nominated for a few technical Oscars (one of which is a well-deserved cinematography nod). One might consider this a snub, but the film is too strange for the Academy. It exists outside rigid categories and thus wouldn’t have warranted the attention needed for votes.
The competition for Best Picture this year is fierce and an introspective picture like this one wouldn’t be able to compete with a film like “Her” or “American Hustle.” But the film isn’t just worth seeing; for film fans it needs to be seen, even if the Academy doesn’t give it the credit it deserves.
The Coen Brothers make great movies.