Friday, December 6, 2013


1961, Greenwich Village, New York. The dawn of the early folk music scene. We meet Llewyn Davis, struggling musician. Played by Oscar Isaac (in plenty of films but never a leading solo man), he sits on a stool at a mic before a smattering of an audience inside a dingy club. "Hang me, oh hang me, and I'll be dead and gone," he croons. Performed by Isaac, the music is the first and foremost thing to notice about Joel and Ethan Coen's latest, "Inside Llewyn Davis." The second thing to notice: this is the writer-director duo's perhaps least plot-driven film but the most solemnly meditative since their Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men." It's a contemplative character study of the highest order and while a bit obtuse, the film looks deep at how a great artist can (or cannot) rise from great adversity.

Llewyn steps off the stage, enters the club's back alley and gets beaten to the ground. Why? We don't know. Just his luck, we suppose. The film is a slow burn as we watch him crash couch to couch, a wandering soul looking for himself. Here's a man not trying to make it as a successful musician but trying to make it at all. He slumps into the apartment of Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake). No backstory required. We deduce that Llewyn once slept with Jean and uses her as a crutch. Brashly played up by Mulligan, she hounds on him calling him a useless asshole. If they ever once were, they are no more. With Jim, he and Jean have their own folk group that gets a better reception than when Llewyn plays. It eats at him. Embodying Llewyn, Isaac delivers a bittersweet combination of sorrow and deadpan humor.

One gig from Jim, which Llewyn decides to take for some quick cash, is a goofball song about President Kennedy and rockets, "Please Mr. Kennedy." Adam Driver of HBO's "Girls" sits in as the guy making the cartoonish "whoops!" and "zoings!" of the accompaniment. It's a bad tune that's somehow still highly enjoyable, a signifier of the kind of songwriting care that went into the script. In a rush, Llewyn decides to not sign a contract to receive royalties on the song which, inevitably, will later become a hit. Desperate for exposure and let down by his ancient manager, he hitchhikes to Chicago to put himself in person with a music producer.

Enter a most surrealist vision, a mood which permeates throughout, the film's aesthetic clouded in a dreamlike haze. Llewyn hitches a ride with the quiet, resolute Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and the mythic, rude Roland Turner (John Goodman). How these two came to be, and where are they going? We don't know. They are only a device for Llewyn to continue on his way. A Coen mainstay, Goodman arrives back to his first film for the brothers in 15 years and commands the screen for the brief, bizarre role.

There's also an orange cat. And plenty of other strange, illusive encounters. But there's the cat. The one Llewyn accidentally lets escape from one of his couch-surfing apartment stays. The one he thinks is the same one he lost but ends up being a different orange cat. But there's always the cat. The burden. We follow Llewyn for one week in his life. And at its conclusion, we find ourselves right back where we started. It's a trick the Coens play but not a bad trick; it's an existential one that illustrates an open-ended theme, one about the journey to finally make it. It's cyclical; it's all the same. It repeats and repeats until eventually you either make it -- or, in the case of Llewyn, our sad sack hero, you don't.

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