by Julian Spivey
Upon walking out of the screening of the Coen brothers latest film “Inside Llewyn Davis” I didn’t really know what to think of it, which was slightly disappointing as it was the film I’d most anticipated from 2013. A few hours later I have determined that it’s a very good film, just not one that’s particularly enjoyable, at least for me.
It’s a good film for many reasons: 1) it’s the Coens doing their typical Coen work (they don’t really make bad movies) 2) the acting is superb 3) the soundtrack could reach all-time great levels 4) the cinematography is gorgeous 5) the dark humor is at many times supreme 6) it’s a intelligently written and acted character study
The Coens crafted this story of an early ‘60s Greenwich Village folk singer, Llewyn Davis (partially influenced by little known folkie Dave Van Ronk), who’s an artist struggling to survive and get his music heard after the death of his partner Mike Timlin, who jumped off of the George Washington Bridge prior to the movie’s beginning.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” follows Davis on a dark journey to nowhere – which is where we find out Llewyn is really headed. It’s a story that the Coens have told before, almost too identically in fact, but this time the journey is a little too strenuous for the audience, at least this viewer, to fully engage in. It might be more engaging if Davis wasn’t so unlikable at times in this film. But, it’s more than likely unable to capture my complete interest for that fact that I’ve seen the Coens do almost this exact same story, but better.
I didn’t realize going into “Inside Llewyn Davis” that it was essentially going to be “Barton Fink,” but with a folk singer instead of a playwright and set in the early ‘60s instead of the early ‘40s. The two are essentially dark tales of artistic integrity with the titular leads stuck in the personal struggle of trying to be successful without completely selling out.
“Barton Fink” is my favorite of the Coen brothers’ films that I’ve seen and for that reason the similarities between Fink and Davis might rub me a little too negatively, but I feel that because the two films are so similar in theme and story that “Inside Llewyn Davis” can’t help but pale in comparison to its predecessor. “Barton Fink” is just an all around better and more enjoyable film of artistic struggle, perhaps because the Coens gave the film a wonderful symbolic and supernatural feel and its characters were infinitely more likable (maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it does to me).
What the Coens do well with “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the film’s ending, which revolves back around to its beginning with Davis singing in the Gaslight Café only to meet up with a mysterious stranger in the alley who has a lesson for him. The nearly identical scenes bookending the film, along with Llewyn’s final line “au revoir” or “until we meet again,” gives the sense that Llewyn is not just trapped in his own little world of failure, but in fact in a type of “Groundhog Day”-esque re-living of the same week over and over. I’m not the first to come to this theory, but it’s certainly not one that everybody or even the majority of the people seem to believe. Different interpretations of their movies seem to be one of the best things about the Coen brothers.
Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Llewyn Davis as a down-trodden, melancholically sardonic prick is near pitch-perfect. He’s excellent as somebody who’s been beaten down by life and himself so many times that he has quit trying.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is completely focused on its main character, but for a short five-to-10 minutes or so John Goodman does his usual supporting character excellence as a heroin-riddled, say-the-first-thing-that-comes-to-his-mind jazz musician, who shares a ride to Chicago with our lead. It was such a fun performance that I didn’t mind not understanding at the moment why it was even included in the film, but later on I figured out that Goodman’s Roland Turner is a good prediction for what Davis could turn out to be later in life.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a perfectly fine piece of filmmaking driven by a fully realized character and performance of that character. It’s also a movie that will leave some of its songs, especially “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” rattling around your skull for days. But, at the same time it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s a re-worked “Barton Fink” for a newer generation. Maybe if it was done by somebody other than Coen brothers I wouldn’t be having this problem.