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A Note on “Inside Llewyn Davis”

 Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of the title character, a folk singer that struggles (sometimes less than admirably) in the early ‘60s folk music scene in New York City.  He sleeps on couches and hitches rides with hardly a penny to his name.  He is the quintessential embodiment of the romantic starving artist.  However, other than characters Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Troy (Stark Sands), nothing about this story is bright or cheerful, much like the music itself.  It is, after all, exploring the tormenting creative life.

Llewyn drifts though his life and career with hardly a thought for the future, trying to avoid any connections that could distract him from his music. Even when Jean (Carey Mulligan) presents information that could alter the course of his entire life, he looks for the quickest option to cut all attachments.  Llewyn and Jean stand in stark contrast to one and another.  Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn with a hard, rough exterior but you can tell is sentimental and compassionate underneath.  Carey Mulligan always appears delicate and sweet, but she gives Jean a vitriolic and caustic personality that stings even more coming from someone that appears to be so kind.  They both give engaging and nuanced performances that drive this film.

Despite Llewyn’s attempts to control his destiny and efforts toward success, he does seem to self-sabotage He sticks with a manager who is most likely stiffing him on any profit from album sales, he berates friends that are the most helpful to him and he antagonizes other colleagues in his profession.  He even refuses future royalties on a song he doesn’t think is good but will clearly be a hit.  He just wants to get paid immediately.  Perhaps great success scares him more than failure, which he already knows. (The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t?) This character, and even the themes of the film, remind me of another critic-darling released this year, Frances Ha.

Both films examine characters motivated by their craft and a deep need to express themselves in New York City, just in different eras.  One is tackling folk music; theother is attempting to be a dancer.  The differences in how the themes are explored are what make one film a success and the other not.

Frances Ha failed to engage me. It presented a character that was doing very little to better her situation or pursue her career.  Instead she makes irrational decisions like going to Paris for two days despite being broke, just charging it to a credit card. Llewyn on the other hand confronts managers about payment, hitches a ride out to Chicago for a chance to play for a legendary folk music manager and even though he detests “pop sounding” music he lends his musical talents to Jim’s ridiculous protest song. And when things are at their worst, he pays for the opportunity to get back into the Merchant Marines.

This intimate character portrait is not the typical Coen film, which is what makes them such masters of cinema. They have an amazing ability to cross genres and adapt their style very specifically to the stories they are telling. One thing that remains consistent is their ability to write and direct supporting characters that don’t just serve the plot but add rich texture to every scene.  The first, there is Troy Nelson, a corn-fed country soldier with wide-eyed optimism and a smile that Llewyn tries desperately to wipe from his face.  Adam Driver gives a standout performance despite being so briefly featured as the folk singer Al Cody. His additional vocals to the song “Please Mr. Kennedy” turn a poorly conceive protest song into something absurd and yet very catchy.

The photography is beautiful, shot by the great French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement). Many of the frames could be stand-alone album covers for 60s folk albums (ie. Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’). The color palate is nearly monochromatic, helped considerably by the bleak New York winter, with simple desaturated splashes of color on specific characters. This cold visual style is a perfect compliment to our antihero’s general disposition and adds to the feeling of helplessness in his life. The weather won’t even give him a break!

We are very luck that Joel and Ethan Coen never opted for a life in dentistry or accounting or, say, the Merchant Marines back when they were knocking on doors looking for financing for Blood Simple. That is not to demean anyone’s choice to be a dentist, merchant marine or accountant; those are great professions just not for artists. The difficult uncertain road of being filmmakers paid off for the Coens and they have an understanding of that process that made subtle moments in this film possible.  Toward the end of the movie Llewyn heckles a fellow folk musician on stage and while he’s being dragged away he screams, “I hate it!  I fuckin’ hate folk music!”  So is the life of an artist with his craft. It’s a craft you simultaneously love and hate; it has a control over you where you think, “if only I was not so compelled to be a (filimmaker, painter, writer, dancer, folk singer, etc) I could be happy doing anything else.”  Half of the torment is in knowing you are a slave to whichever craft you are a part.  And we should be happy that people like Llewyn Davis could never be a merchant marine and Joel and Ethan could never be accountants.


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