Is Inside Llewyn Davis the last great 2013 film? Quite possibly. It may also prove to be the most polarizing. Originally, it was set to go wide on Dec. 20, but it made the studio nervous. It’s the kind of film that is likely more loved by critics than the general public. Actually, the first time I saw it (I’ve seen it three times now) was in an audience of five critics — and three of them disliked it intensely. While I was not among them, I understood why. It is probably the Coen brothers’ most prickly and off-putting major film since Barton Fink (1991). There is not a single truly likable character in it. Plus, it’s a strange film experience with an ending that we may or may not have seen at the beginning. And if you’re expecting a film about folk singer Dave Van Ronk — despite the fact that the Coens have said that Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is only based on Van Ronk in the loosest possible sense — this isn’t it. It’s a hard film to like, a harder one to ignore and an impossible film to assess at all until you’ve seen the whole thing. (If you walk out on it, don’t bother telling me you hated it.)
Despite the fact that Inside Llewyn Davis never leaves Llewyn Davis as it covers a week in his life, the film is really more about a time, a place and a musical movement than it’s about any one person or group of people. Or maybe it’s about all the people in and around the birth of that new era in folk music. All the same, we spend all of our time with Llewyn Davis for that one week in the winter of 1961. Davis is an adequate but relatively unremarkable folk singer. He also has bad luck — most of which he brings on himself. He’s irresponsible, selfish, self-centered, undeservedly arrogant, and he resents just about everyone and everything. He was a part of moderately successful duo, but his partner jumped off the George Washington Bridge (a fact that greatly amuses John Goodman’s bitter and clearly unwell drug-addicted, jazz musician character later in the film). Davis has no home and no real friends — only people on whose couches he can crash (or whose girlfriends he can seduce).
Some of his resentment is well-earned. He has a worthless agent. Every time he actually tries to do what he perceives as the right thing, he either does it wrong or screws himself in the process. He loses a friend’s cat, then finds a cat and ends up stuck with it for reasons I won’t go into. He sells his rights to a song destined to be popular and produce residuals in order to pay for an abortion — only to learn he has credit with the doctor from a previous abortion that didn’t take place. His whole life is like this, and everything he does just makes it worse. If it all sounds grim, it is. But in the Coens’ hands, it’s also bitterly amusing and strangely satisfying.
The stretch of the film where Davis travels to Chicago with Goodman’s jazz musician and his taciturn keeper/supplier (Garrett Hedlund) is like a bad dream. Everything that happens seems slightly surreal, and the film takes on an aura of something like The Odyssey. The Coens are very familiar with this ground, but Inside Llewyn Davis is much darker and much less playful than O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). And this odyssey only results in rejection, another bad choice and a trip right back to where things started — at least, maybe. The film’s ending is fascinating in that it’s not clear what we’re witnessing or where it leaves Llewyn Davis. He’s either unwittingly at the edge of the explosion of folk music (note carefully who is about to play when he exits the club), or he’s about to make another bad choice at precisely the wrong time. That’s left to you. An altogether brilliant, but far from cuddly film. Rated R for language including some sexual references.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas and Fine Arts Theatre.