Arts & Culture

‘Llewyn Davis’ plays for and reaches artistic immediacy

Downtrodden folk singer fights for his career in Coen brothers’ latest career milestone

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, January 24, 2014

It’s quirky, dry, repetitive, dark and mysterious. In sum, it’s a Coen brothers’ film. This is why, more than a month after its release, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is still fresh. Through painstakingly deliberate shots that form an innate rhythm, the film elevates itself to masterpiece level. The Coens offer an ambiguous experience that reveals more about the viewers than the filmmakers.

Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, guides the viewer through his life over the span of a week. As a struggling folk singer in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Llewyn spends much of his time sleeping on couches, hitching rides, contemplating the entertainment business and arguing with friends and family members. He loses a friend’s cat, discovers he has a child, gets rejected by a music mogul and, memorably tying together the film’s melancholy, is punched in the face in a repeated scene that bookends the film. Llewyn also plays the guitar quite a lot, and quite well.

Eschewing a narrative in favor of a showcase of daily life, “Inside Llewyn Davis” can at first glance be written off as pessimistic and pointless: a display of failure that merely serves as a vehicle for moving folk music and spot-on performances from the likes of Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Adam Driver. Llewyn himself  is often angry or brooding. By the time he yells at a woman hosting him for dinner, it’s tempting to dismiss him.

But the film ultimately exudes optimism. The supporting characters are, in typical Coen brothers fashion, fairly one-dimensional, fitting into one of two camps — confident and aggressive or demure to a fault. Llewyn’s conversations with these figures are short, tense and often strangely funny as he fights in vain with the obstinate people around him. Having a protagonist who  stands out as so clearly human in a world of mechanical people despite his flaws is a breath of fresh air. In the wake of his musical partner’s suicide and his own stalled career, he is vulnerable and insecure, frustrated but hopeful.

Two conversations stand out as especially sensitive. In one, music agent Bud Grossman bluntly denies Llewyn a solo act, offering him candid advice. In another sequence, his friend Jean refuses to let him quit playing, overcoming their rocky relationship in a brief show of support. These scenes anchor the film to a study of Llewyn’s growth rather than a treatise on his demise.

The Coens wink at the audience with an otherwise unnecessary shot of Llewyn walking past a Disney movie poster for “The Incredible Journey,” which indicates that though Llewyn’s life may be no fairy tale, he is unmistakably moving forward.

A considerable amount of time is devoted to full-song renditions of Llewyn’s music. He is not a sinking ship, but instead appears a talented musician struggling with the direction his profession has taken. All the singers we meet are more successful than Llewyn, but none have his finesse, and their successes have come at a price — heroin addiction, adultery, lack of creativity.

By the time Llewyn lands face-down once again in an alley at the end of the film, he has learned a lot. The flashback to his lowest moment appears to be a representation of Llewyn’s own vicious cycle, until one notices that the camera work in the final scene is much different than that in the first. A fresh perspective, if you will.

Whether or not Llewyn succeeds in his struggle and whether or not the audience enjoys the witty dialogue, the Coen brothers are clearly the winners here. Once again, they have created a film with the potential for everlasting cultural debate. Meaning will be stripped by some viewers and added by others. It is easy to picture them laughing as audiences struggle to find the symbolism in Llewyn’s cat. Maybe it’s just a cat.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is playing at the Avon Cinema through Thursday.

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