INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Review

To be burdened with ambitions that outweigh what the average person looks for to find satisfaction in life is a burden that will weigh heavy your entire life. There is no escaping the thought that you need to keep trying, that you need to keep going or else you will miss the opportunity that will grant you access to a world and a life you have only dreamed of prior. There is seemingly no shame in this, but it can certainly make for an unpleasant existence. While in today's world it would seem easier to make one's self known for their musical ability it has become so crowded with so many people trying so many different avenues that those who do achieve a level of success that fully supports their livelihood are those whose names we know and hear rotated on top forty radio. They are deemed the successes, the ones who luck into or operate under the circumstances of being picked to have their song played over and over despite the fact music can be recorded, promoted and played on any social media and pretty much any device the average person carries around all day. It is more difficult than ever to make yourself stand out, but Llewyn Davis would argue to his point that no matter how hard he tries, being in the right place, playing the right music at the right time still doesn't guarantee success for despite the talent Davis possesses he doesn't seem to be able to catch a break. In the latest film from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen they bring their bleak, deadpan humor to the 1960's Greenwich Village folk scene and focus on a kind of day in the life of a struggling musician. Ultimately, the film becomes more than this and plays into the larger themes of disappointment and the difference in leading a fulfilling life and simply existing. It is, in many regards, a hard truth to swallow about human nature, our dreams and how we are conditioned to believe things must go a certain way in order to be regarded as a success which commonly translates to a satisfaction with ones self not too many people seem to ever fully reach. I have enjoyed Coen brothers films over the years and usually find their tone and sense of humor inviting and extremely in line with how my inner most thoughts work. Inside Llewyn Davis feels like something special though, something I'll cherish for a long time to come.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) finds himself stuck with only a cat and his guitar.
We are introduced to Llewyn (the incredible Oscar Isaac) as he plays for a crowd at the Gaslight theater in the winter of 1961. There is nothing more than him, his guitar and his voice yet the crowd seems captivated. We hear the slight noise of glasses clanging as they're washed in the back, but the sole spotlight lands on Llewyn and so we are sucked into the atmosphere without really seeing anything more than this brief moment of time in this mans life where is able to express and do what makes him happiest in life, what he would give up every convention for in order to do without anything else weighing him down. This rendition of "Oh Hang Me" hangs in the smoke-filled air as its words cut through the atmosphere and relay the struggle Llewyn has seemingly been through in order to play for the crowd on this night while the chorus emphasizes his current state of mind. It is a simple song, a folk song that sounds familiar even if you've never heard it before. "If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song," so says our titular musician as he finishes the opening song. From that point the ball was rolling and it never seemed to stop or drip and though occasionally I wondered what the point of a certain characters presence might be or what a specific line reading might indicate for later, I was never taken out of the film or distracted, but in fact I was completely captivated by the film. Llewyn moves from couch to couch, bumming off anyone and everyone he comes to have a slight association with and most take him for nothing more than what he appears to be, though like Llewyn, we are frustrated because we know his potential, we know he has the ability and the intelligence to compose and perform striking material but that people keep dismissing him and not giving him a second thought becomes as frustrating to us as it is hit after hit to Llewyn's confidence and more than enough reason to give up and go straight in life or simply existing as he calls it. His friends Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) are a popular duo and seem to be a little bit more established than Llewyn despite Llewyn and Jean having an evident history and Llewyn recently mourning the loss of his own singing partner.

There is no driving plot to the film, nowhere we naturally expect it to take us, but we remain wrapped up in Llewyn's plight not because he is the asshole everyone makes him out to be, but because we see a tenderness in him and the honest intention of his actions that come off self-centered and lacking in any real motivation to anyone else. Jean is his harshest critic and Mulligan plays her with a precise pitch where she delivers each insult as if pre-determined. As if no matter when she sees Llewyn again there will no doubt be something to complain about and so she has crafts as many jabs with the word "asshole" as possible. It plays directly into that dark sense of humor and torture of the main character that is typically presented in a Coen brothers film, but more than that it enlightens us to the position Llewyn holds among his contemporaries and his further befuddlement when someone who comes off as square as Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) comes to be regarded as what people are looking for in a singer and performer. While the appearance of Timberlake is little more than a glorified cameo it offers one of the single best scenes of the year as Jim and Llewyn along with Al Cody (Adam Driver) record "Please Mr. Kennedy" a song of not-so serious content, but catchy nonetheless and something Jim wrote himself and is clearly passionate about. Llewyn is thankful for the gig and the immediate cash it will grant him (a favor Jim didn't have to do and wouldn't have done did he know the reasons Llewyn asked to borrow money the night before) despite the fact he forgoes receiving any royalties that might come of the song. This is just another sad misstep in Llewyn's journey toward bigger things, but it is made evident after an impromptu trip to Chicago and a meeting with Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) who runs The Gate of Horn venue that Llewyn may have to face the music and turn his back on his one true love for the road most traveled. I knew going in not to expect a great outcome for Llewyn because no matter the circumstances of our journey, sometimes we just don't make it. I knew to expect that from the Coens and the hard truth they wished to evoke and oppose the "follow your dreams" mantra that thousands will tell you is nothing but talk. I expected it, but I didn't expect it to hit me so hard.

Llewyn accompanies Jim (Justin Timberlake) in a recording of "Please Mr. Kennedy".
There are literally a thousand things I would love to talk about and explore further with the film. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (a long time collaborator of Tim Burton's) is absolutely gorgeous and it, along with the immaculately detailed set-design and specific, yet not over the top period wardrobe add only to this constantly building atmosphere that we truly feel puts us right in the center of this world and what it felt like to exist in that moment in time. We look back on these years and how they've come to be defined as they years have passed and we romanticize them, considering how great it would have been to live during the era when you could walk down to the corner bar and see Bob Dylan playing a show for the keep that comes with in the basket. How exhilarating it might now be to live without the distraction of technology with a wonder as to the unknown that lay across the world or even in a different city, but as much as Inside Llewn Davis shows us that no era or moment in time is as easy or forgiving as its legacy would have you believe it seems capable of conveying the truth, the essence of what took place in Greenwich Village and the music that came out of it. Everything about the performances and the look contribute to this overriding sense of heartache and the aimless wanderer that Llewyn will never be able to escape. The aforementioned moment where I wondered what the presence of certain characters might lead to was in regards to that of Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman. Goodman is almost a Coen staple at this point and moreso a staple in these grand supporting roles that nearly take over the narrative as we'd just as much be interested in seeing a movie about Roland Turner as we would Llewyn Davis. There is never a blatant reason for their inclusion in the film given, but when at one of the many rest stops along their way where Turner goes to the bathroom for prolonged periods of time we watch as Llewyn goes into a stall only to see the question of, "What are you doing?" scratched into the wall. It is that simple question, one that Llewyn wouldn't likely be able to answer given his current set of circumstances and why all of this is worth an outcome that may lead to nothing. It is a question that, like that opening song, hangs in the air and will unfortunately always be there for Llewyn Davis as it seems he is destined for nothing more than the harsh circle of routine: the one thing he was desperately trying to avoid.