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Inside Llewyn Davis

Movie Information

The Story: A week of hard luck in the life of a moderately talented folk singer in the winter of 1961. The Lowdown: The Coen brothers' latest is one of 2013's best films, but while it's bitterly funny, it's also a darkly disturbing film that's likely to alienate some people. It's a remarkable movie with a remarkable soundtrack, but despite some obvious similarities, don't expect another O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Score:

Genre: Drama with Dark Comedy and Music
Director: Ethan and Joel Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund
Rated: R

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

26 thoughts on “Inside Llewyn Davis

  1. Me

    I’ve heard there are a lot of hidden cat jokes Ulysses, Save the Cat etc.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Not quite sure I get the idea of “hidden cat jokes,” but I’m reasonably certain there’s a reason why the cat(s) here are the same kind and color as Pickles in The Ladykillers.

  3. Jason

    I saw this in Atlanta over Christmas, and I was divided on it. I did not absolutely love it, it is no O Brother Where Art Thou, maybe the polar opposite, but I knew it was well crafted, and I should see it again. I think seeing it a second time, and knowing that none of the characters are likeable, especially the protagonist, might make me view it in a different light.

  4. Ken Hanke

    A second viewing definitely helps. But it won’t make it O Brother.

  5. Big Al

    “..the film takes on an aura of something like The Odyssey.”

    I found this attempt to parallel The Odyssey SO OBVIOUS (the movie poster, the cat’s name, really..?) that this was for me the least subtle film the Coen’s have made.

    I still enjoyed it, but subtleties are what trademark their films for me and this one had none that I can recall.

    I loved seeing a darker Carey Mulligan (and I don’t mean the hair).

  6. Me

    Talk about subtleties, i wish they would have left the Bob Dylan thing a little bit more ambiguous.

  7. Ken Hanke

    The subtleties are perhaps so subtle that you haven’t picked up on them.

  8. Edwin Arnaudin

    Talk about subtleties, i wish they would have left the Bob Dylan thing a little bit more ambiguous.

    I thought it was handled well. They don’t identify him by name or show him up close, plus he’s only shown for a few seconds.

  9. Steven

    [b]Talk about subtleties, i wish they would have left the Bob Dylan thing a little bit more ambiguous.
    [/b]

    How would you suggest they handle this?

  10. Steven

    [b]A second viewing definitely helps. But it won’t make it O Brother.
    [/b]

    It’s better. But this one has the lack of George Clooney’s undeniable smugness going for it.

  11. Ken Hanke

    I thought it was handled well. They don’t identify him by name or show him up close, plus he’s only shown for a few seconds.

    and

    How would you suggest they handle this?

    Well, they do call him “Young Bob” in the credits, but you don’t get that for a clue till after the movie is over. I’ve actually seen people not realize it was supposed to be Dylan. Apart from not using the idea altogether, I don’t see how this could be made more subtle.

  12. Ken Hanke

    But this one has the lack of George Clooney’s undeniable smugness going for it.

    Oh…my. Oh, no, no no. This was the first time I actually liked Clooney. Major disagreement here.

  13. Edwin Arnaudin

    This was the first time I actually liked Clooney.

    Not Three Kings? That and his participation in the South Park movie got me thinking he could be something great.

  14. Me

    “How would you suggest they handle this?”

    I think it would have worked a lot better if they would have let the ending Dylan song just play in the alley and let the audience figure out it was him. Im not sure how they could have shown him though without anyone knowing it was him, maybe a quicker cut or something.

  15. Ken Hanke

    In other words you don’t really know. I’m not even clear why it needs to be more ambiguous for the audience. So you can feel cleverer for catching it? It only needs to be lost on Llewyn Davis.

  16. Ken Hanke

    Not Three Kings?

    I saw Three Kings much later. Always bear in mind that up till…well, about the time O Brother came out, I was very selective about what I saw. The only late ’90s movies I remember offhand seeing in theaters were Gods and Monsters, Shakespeare in Love, The Horse Whisperer, The Ninth Gate, and Sleepy Hollow. Oh, yeah, some friends took me with them to see South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut — my major memory of which was being the only person (including my friends) in a packed theater who laughed at the “Felcher and Sons” label on Elton’s piano.

  17. Me

    I’ve read some reviews that claim the Coens use humiliation to kick start a narrative. I can see that in maybe Lebowski, but not here.

  18. Me

    I guess its just that i hold Bob Dylan in such high esteem that like any iconic character portrayal it can be touchy.

  19. Me

    “So you can feel cleverer for catching it?”

    That wasnt my intention, but you of all people should know how dumb i can be, so i will take it where i can get it, i guess.

  20. Ken Hanke

    I guess its just that i hold Bob Dylan in such high esteem that like any iconic character portrayal it can be touchy.

    So you would relegate Dylan to those old movies that only showed a hand here or a foot there when depicting Jesus?

  21. Big Al

    “…those old movies that only showed a hand here or a foot there when depicting Jesus?”

    Similar to “The Messenger” avoiding any image of Mohammed. (isn’t there a remake of that in the works?)

    What would Dylan do?

  22. Ken Hanke

    Similar to “The Messenger” avoiding any image of Mohammed. (isn’t there a remake of that in the works?)

    Or any old movie depicting a sitting president. They’re always in shadow or we only see part of the back of their heads.

    What would Dylan do?

    I have a t-shirt with a picture of Bela Lugosi as Jesus that asks, “What would Bela do?” I’m comfortable with that concept.

  23. bsummers

    If you want to get mad at something, how about Battlestar Gallactica appropriating Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, lyrics & all, and weaving it into the story as if it had been written by ancient beings at the dawn of time?

    Talk about ‘Young Bob’…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1__dINxiXU

    • bsummers

      Not watch BSG? Sometimes I don’t know how to interpret the crazy sounds that come out of your head, Ken.

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