INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is the Coen Brothers most heartfelt serenade

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“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: Music and Cats” – Albert Schweitzer

There are some movies you shouldn’t have to be sold on.  There are some movies you should just trust to be worth your time.  The phrase “the new film from Joel & Ethan Coen” should fall under such rubric and be enough to entice even the most casual moviegoer to sprint to the theater.  And yet, in December of 2013, I (a proud movie nerd and Coen Brothers fan) couldn’t find the time to even watch the trailer for these master filmmakers latest — let alone leave my house and stand in line at the box office.  Maybe I was busy, maybe this little movie was overshadowed by higher profile projects from Scorsese, Jonze and McKay (The Wolf of Wall Street, Her, Anchorman 2), or maybe I was just disenchanted with the lackluster studio offerings and didn’t want to go near a multiplex (Madea 13, 47 Ronin, The Hobbit part 7: Bilbo’s Revenge).  I suppose I needed a little word-of-mouth because the title Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t make much sense to me and the IMDB synopsis —“A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961” — just wasn’t selling me.  I think I saw that Justin Timberlake and John Goodman had roles but the guy on the poster was a complete mystery.  Oscar Isaac?  Never heard of him.  Oh, he had a small part in Drive andSucker Punch?  Whoopty doo.  What’s that?  The movie features a lot of folk music?  Z z z z z z z z.  And so, because of my ignorant indifference, this little movie flew under my radar, outside of my periphery and away from my consideration.

I should have known better.

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I should have trusted that the phrase “written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen”.  It is a phrase synonymous with unique cinematic experiences that are always entertaining and often quite deep.  I think, by now, it’s generally acknowledged that these artists are geniuses.  In their 30 year career, they’ve really only had one misfire and even that was more of a firecracker than a bomb.  So, it is to my shame — I admit I had no real excuse for waiting so long to see the follow up movie from the prodigies who had the guts and the talent to remake True Grit — that it took me three years to finally give Inside Llewyn Davis a chance, but when I did, boy, did this movie affect me to my core.

It’s kind of funny when I think about it, but I only caught this film because it appeared randomly on cable one morning.  I said, “I’ll watch until I finish my morning coffee.  If it doesn’t thrill me by the time I empty my cup I’ll get up, brush my teeth and run some errands.  On that whim, I finally gave the movie a chance.  I figured, at least, I’d find something to appreciate with Inside Llewyn Davis but nothing could have prepared me for the profound gut-punch to my soul this beautiful movie left me feeling.  You better believe that when my cup went empty I paused the movie, got a refill, sat back down and remained transfixed throughout the rest of the film.

What really captivated me about Inside Llewyn Davis was that it’s fundamentally a tale about a person reexamining the choices he’s made in his life.  Let me tell you, as a guy staring down the barrel of his 40th birthday, this movie spoke to me in ways that may not resonate with most audiences.  This is unfortunate because I think that Inside Llewyn Davis may be the most personal of all the Coen’s films.  The troubles of the Llewyn Davis feel relatable to any person who has ever struggled to pursue their dream, suffered a loss, or doubt the path they chose.  It’s not a tale of criminals or fools, but about a flawed man trying hard to find meaning and fulfillment in life.

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The story is simple and the plot is thin.  Yet every scene, performance and word of dialogue is deeply layered with subtext and meaning.  The movie opens with Llewyn Davis giving a soulful but plucky rendition of Hang Me, Oh Hang Me in a humble, smoky club.  It is the winter of 1961, and Llewyn is a poor, Greenwich Village folk singer (armed only with his guitar) tries to make his way in a cold, dreary and unsympathetic world.  The audience Llewyn plays for is small, but the camera reveals that they are completely moved by his performance.  The song, like the movie itself, is bitter-sweet.  It has lyrics that are a little grim but uplifted by a thoughtful and lively tone.  It’s a song that’s a bit sad but one that’s charming enough to make you smile.  As the final chord is strummed the audience claps and whistles and Llewyn replies, with a wry smile, “you probably heard that one before.  If it was never new and it never gets old then it’s a folk song.”  He’s introduced as a handsome, soft-spoken and talented performer who then proceeds to get the crap beaten out of him in the back alley.

 

“Had to open yer mouth, funny boy?” a silhouetted, stranger with a Southern drawl cryptically asks.

 

“Had to – what?  Open my mouth?  It’s what I do,” Llewyn answers.  A punch lands him face down in the slush.

 

“What you do . . . ”, echoes the stranger, who is presented like a punishing specter in a way only the Coen’s are able to conjure.

 

“What you do.”

This intro and mystery (what did Llewyn do to deserve this?) really captured my attention.  Ultimately, the answer is less of a climactic reveal and more of a foreshadowing of where the story is going.  As I mentioned, this film is more of a character study than one propelled by plot and the opening 5 minutes turn out to be a thesis statement of the man we are about to follow.

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Llewyn has a mouth.  Sometimes he uses it to be sweet and sometimes he uses it for spite.  He sings his heart out and often gets beaten down (metaphorically) because he’s a little full of himself, a little irresponsible and a little bit of a dick.  But he’s a funny dick, and often when Llewyn is being inappropriate you can’t help but laugh.  Most of the time he’s not even acting out of malice but rather reacting out of a sense of weary, loneliness and defeat.  It’s a vicious cycle that Oscar Isaac refers to as “Llewyn being trapped, running in place, on a hamster wheel”.

 

You see, it is soon revealed that Llewyn is grieving the loss of his partner, and from his loss it is conveyed that he distances himself from people to keep from being hurt.  Llewyn asks favors but he’s too proud admit he needs help.  He rotates through an address book of friends for a couch to sleep on but never wants to burden anyone for too long.  He’s at a crossroads in his life; sure of his talent but unwilling to compromise in order to get ahead.  Llewyn is more content to justify his failures as the world not appreciating what he has to offer.  In reality, his biggest detriment appears to be rooted in his ego, his shortsighted choices and his attitude.

 

Llewyn plays small clubs for petty cash, looks down on artists who “sell out”, and pities friends and family who settle down and merely “exist”.  Meanwhile, there’s a creeping realization that for all his determination Llewyn’s life is passing him by.  In a last ditch effort to advance his career he travels cross-country for one last audition with an ill-tempered Jazz musician (John Goodman) and his contemptuous “valet”.  Along the way, he performs beautiful folk songs, doesn’t get enough sleep and becomes a caretaker for his friends lost cat.

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Ah, the cat.

The cat was the element that really made Inside Llewyn Davis special for me.  Visually it was an eye-catching gimmick but it also made me immediately sympathize with the down-and-out musician.  At the beginning of the film, Llewyn accidentally lets his friends cat out of the apartment and he takes it upon himself to carry the orange tabby everywhere: on the subway, across town and even cross country.  This act of kindness is very endearing but it’s also reminiscent of a screen writers device called Saving the Cat.  

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Saving the Cat is a tool writers’ use to give the audience a reason to care about a less than shining protagonist.  For example, in the Disney animated feature Aladdin, Aladdin is introduced as a thief who steals bread, but the movie quickly demonstrates to the audience that Aladdin has a heart of gold when by he shares his score with some hungry kids.  Another example is in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Indiana Jones is introduced as a shadowy treasure hunter, with no reason to trust the men in his company.  However, he still saves the life of his treacherous companion Satipo in the booby-trapped temple, only to be betrayed by him later.  The Coen’s literally have Llewyn Davis “saving the cat” in the opening of Inside Llewyn Davis.  They show him chase, protect and care for the animal within the first ten minutes.  However, as any Coen brothers fan realizes, if the Coen’s are utilizing this “on the nose” technique it is anything but straightforward.

 

In Inside Llewyn Davis the cat is clearly a symbol and recurring motif, but one, I must admit, don’t fully understand.  After taking his friend’s pet under his care, Llewyn leaves a telephone message to the cat’s owner.  “Please tell him, ‘Llewyn has the cat.”  Over the phone, the secretary he’s speaking with misinterprets his message as “Llewyn is the cat”.  On the surface this a funny joke but as the film unfolds it’s a phrase loaded with meaning.  In fact, this line has launched hundreds of speculative discussions on internet message boards, and some of the fun of the film is trying to decipher what the Coen brothers intended.  Several times the cat stares knowingly into Llewyn’s eyes and even appears and disappears almost supernaturally.  It’s a motif very reminiscent of the hat in Miller’s Crossing or the twin tattoosRaising Arizona.

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As I watched Inside Llewyn Davis I couldn’t help notice other subtle themes and motifs and I began to toss around my own theories as to what they were all about.  Throughout, the film there are many representations of cooperation and coupling.  There seemed to be a reoccurring theme of a“prosperity through partnership” contrasted with “struggling from isolation”.  As Llewyn drives to Chicago and hitches back to New York I pondered the symbolism of his travels; one man sleeps while the other man drives.  On the road, as in life, you can get much farther if someone else helps you carry the burden.  There is also the implication that personality garnishes more success than proficiency.  Llewyn is an amazing guitar player but he can’t seem to succeed.  He meets Troy, a polite and amiable soldier who, in retrospect, kind of acts like a dog.  He’s a friendly, genial and disciplined and expresses none of the sarcasm that comes so naturally to Llewyn.  Like Llewyn, he too is a musician but one who has prospects and reputable representation with the musical arbiter Bud Grossman (played with gravitas by F. Murray Abraham).  “Good kid.  He connects with people,” Grossman later says of Troy after turning Llewyn down.

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As a cat lover, I kind of felt that Llewyn Davis had the demeanor of a cat.  I wonder if maybe the Coen’s deeper implication of the cat metaphor came from people’s general perception that cats are aloof, uncaring and solitary animals and that’s why some just don’t get the appeal.  Cats are actually very social, sensitive and affectionate despite their independent reputation.  Dogs, on the other hand, are more outgoing and are considered man’s best friend.  If “Llewyn is the cat”, with his withdrawn nature symbolic of feline tendencies, then it’s possible that his percieved failure to connect is actually a misconception and not indicative of a lack of ability or desire for connection.

Do you see what watching Inside Llewyn Davis will do?  I’m still contemplating these questions days later.  You don’t get that with Entourage.

If all this conjecture and rumination sounds like I’m describing a dry, depressing slog of a drama, please don’t get the wrong idea.  This is a Coen Brothers film and as such is filled with colorful characters, lots of humor and dialogue that dances off the tongue.  And if The Coen Brothers or Folk music isn’t your cup of Lipton, at the very least, let me insist you give this movie a chance for Oscar Isaac’s performance alone.

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I didn’t know who this guy was in 2013 but since then Hollywood has figured out what the Coen’s already knew: Oscar Isaac is a star.  The Coen’s say he was cast because he was that rare talent who could sing as well as act, but it’s clear he offers so much more than that.  Isaac gives a tour-de-force performance as Llewyn Davis.  This is a complex performance featuring a character that isn’t to like, but Oscar Isaac has a charisma that is remarkable.  He makes it easy to emphasize with a smug smartass . . . even without the cat.  It is tragically the epitome of irony that he was overlooked come award season.  Seriously, that’s essentially the running tragedy of the character.  Oscar Isaac should have been recognized by every ceremony that handed out shiny little statues in 2013.  Luckily, he was still rewarded in another way by immediately being cast in some of very high profile movies (Ex Machina, X Men: Age of Apocalypse and a lead in the new Star Wars trilogy).  It’d would be a cosmic crime if this man didn’t have a very long and bright career.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie I can’t recommend enough.  It’s a film that demands discussion and watching it can lead to a lot of introspection.  I was surprised at how much I could relate to Llewyn even if I have little knowledge of Folk Music, the Greenwich Village music scene of the early 60s or the loss of a close friend.  There is so much going on with this character that his struggles feel universally human.  One scene, in particular, embodies this humanity in a way I would hope would resonate with anyone.  It’s a scene toward the end where Llewyn visits his aging father to play him a song from his childhood.  It’s a touching scene but one that is, once again, one that is open to interpretation.  I found the song Llewyn sings (The Shoals of Herring) to be emotionally affecting and yet I’ve replayed the scene a dozen times to try and interpret just exactly what Llewyn was feeling when he finishes.  The expression on his face and the single word he utters is very enigmatic.  I’ve gone online to see examine other people’s interpretations and it’s remarkable how varying they are.  I even find my own opinion changing every time I see it.

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Inside Llewyn Davis really is a truly fascinating portrait of character and a genre of music.  I really believe it deserves to be considered as one of the Coen’s best films.  Days after watching this wonderful movie I’m listening to the terrific soundtrack and still thinking about all the memorable moments.  This is truly a beautiful, bittersweet, and surprisingly funny character study that touched me in a very personal and unexpected ways.  I hope you give this little gem of a film a chance and get to know Llewyn Davis.

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