If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song…
Llewyn Davis is going through what we in the field of pretentious writers & artists call a typical “existential crisis,” brought on by the dual-bastard existential storm-systems of a cruel winter (in the year of our Lord, nineteen-hundred & sixty one) and the dull grind of the same-old, same-old routine – gigs that don’t pay well, friends who promise your usual crash-couch to some hillbilly just up from the Army, yuppies who love folk music but not enough to get down into the nasty, smoke-filled trenches, the trenches of despair and misery and poverty and folk music, the same trenches that Llewyn Davis (the brilliant Oscar Isaac) fights in and tries like Hell at the same time to escape. This is Llewyn Davis’ world, one of music and the bright, hopeful scene found in Greenwich Village, 1961. It’s a special time (post-Woody Guthrie, pre-Bob Dylan) in the folk scene in New York City, one we pretentious writers & artists stare at fondly and look to for inspiration – me? I’ve worn out several copies of The Free-Wheelin Bob Dylan, as I’m sure you have too; but, would Llewyn Davis look upon the folk scene of New York City circa-’61 fondly? Hell no, and, as I’ve mentioned, he’s trying like Hell to escape – maybe the merchant marines, a ship pointed out towards the suburbs and the horrifying world of his parents. If you’re a writer (or, of course, an artist of any shape, size, or creed), you understand this existential crisis quite well. To give up on your dream would be the end of the world/a life tucked away in the suburbs, every artist’s Hell, neat and happy and full of the latest flashy consumer-goods for your dying soul, or so I’ve been warned about by my own beating, shivering writer’s heart.
This is the crisis of Llewyn Davis, as brought to you by the ever-genius Coen Brothers. I’m sure you know this feeling like I do.
When we first meet him, he’s on the cigarette smoke-obscured stage of the Gaslight Cafe, all the power he can muster in the soul pouring into a folk song, probably one that’s been passed down through the hallowed halls of American misery; he’s played this song before (see the quote that begins this very same quasi-review) and even through his shining talent we can see that he’s just so goddamn tired. He’s basically a drifter, so he knows he’ll be spending the night on a couch somewhere in the city – probably at the home of his friends Jim & Jean (Justin Timberlake and the always beautiful/brilliant/talented Carrie Mulligan), but most likely at the apartment of the Gorfeins, the pretentious, folk-loving couple that treats him a trained fucking seal, an ultra-talented wind-up toy that they can ooh-and-ahh at whenever they feel like it, which, of course, drives Llewyn crazy (just wait for this scene…it’s one of the funniest in the film). His best friend (Max Casella), the one who runs the club, is kind of a loud-mouthed scumbag. His musical partner, Tim, has been dead for awhile now – committed suicide, threw himself off the George Washington Bridge (“George Washington Bridge? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally. George Washington Bridge? Who does that?”). It’s winter. He has no money, no future & no prospects, no winter coat, his old girlfriend ran away with his child to Akron, and his mistress is pregnant. How could a man like Llewyn Davis not break down in the face of this existential terror? It would break any of us.
A few years ago I had a winter exactly like this. I had no money, (seemingly) no future, I couldn’t seem to ever get warm, and, worst of all, I was considering abandoning the thing I love most of all – writing – simply because I was tired of (figuratively) getting punched in the balls every time I opened my eyes to begin another miserable fucking day. I’ve never been more tired in all of my short, not-so-miserable life and, no matter how much I slept, I couldn’t seem to find rest. The bags under my eyes threatened to become permanent, my friends were off on their own terrible trips, and everything I wrote immediately turned to crap (in my own sleep-deprived mind, at least). Sometimes, I would sleep for fourteen hours, and, sometimes, I would be awake for two or three days in a row, all because I was depressed and couldn’t seem to snap the hell out of it. Everything was terrible & everyone sucked – I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. We all have our “winter of discontent” and that’s immediately what Inside Llewyn Davis made me think of: a dark time in my life, and how fighting for your art is worth it, down to the bone, no matter how much it sometimes feels like the thing you love the most is trying to break your spirit with a Louisville Slugger, no matter how tired you will most definitely get…where was I going with this again?? Oh yeah: I love this damn move, even if it reminded me of a time I sometimes would like to forget. In fact, the character of Llewyn reminds me so much of myself that I sat in my car for about ten minutes after the movie was over, wondering that great question of the artist’s life: am I REALLY that much of an asshole??
(Psssssst: the answer is “yes,” you ARE that much of an asshole. This is what you get for asking. As you can tell, I don’t write reviews!)
How much can one say about Joel & Ethan Coen? Consider this sequence: Llewyn needs to get to Chicago and so hitches the ride with a friend of his acquaintance Al Cody (Adam Driver). During this long & painfully awkward drive — the driver, played by Garrett Hedlund, doesn’t talk, and the drug-addicted jazzman, full of hot-air, holding court in the backseat, is played beautifully by John Goodman — Llewyn questions every last facet of his drifter’s existence: the estranged child in Akron, the simplicity of folk music, Ulysses the cat…all of it building up to a disappointing audition for a nightclub owner (F. Murray Abraham, who seems to be everywhere this year). Consider this sequence for how well-staged it is, how the quasi-existential tragedy that is Llewyn Davis matches the way the camera faces towards a foggy road, any possible obstacle that life may throw just waiting just off-camera in the darkness, waiting for its turn to leap out and cause chaos…
I have loved every last movie the Coen Brothers have released over the last thirty years, and Inside Llewyn Davis is just the latest in a long line of great films. The music, the atmosphere, the acting, the cinematography….all of it a testament to their brilliance. I don’t normally write reviews, I’m no good at them, but I felt the overwhelming need to write this review.. Stop reading this right now and see this movie.
– Jackson Williams.