There are a few creators who tend to pop up pretty frequently over the course of this project. Directors who really connect with me, and whose work is a reliable source of entertainment and inspiration. The Coen Brothers are that type of creators, two men who make almost the exact type of movies that I’m interested in. And, over the years, they’ve really tried a bit of everything, and I end up connecting to just about all of it. So, it’s probably not that surprising that I decided to select their masterpiece Inside Llewyn Davis as my favorite film of 2013, despite a pretty stacked year of solid films that are exactly the type of movie I would normally highlight. I mean, just looking through the films released in 2013 I’m kind of shocked by how many fantastic movies we got that year. I mean, The Wolf of Wall Street? Seriously one of my favorite Scorsese films of all time, and one of the most biting and depressing tales about modern day America, all while remaining an incredibly entertaining film. And, speaking of kind of depressing while also being a whole lot of fun, we got Edgar Wright’s triumphant conclusion to his Cornetto Trilogy with the World’s End, a movie that really goes in some wonderful and unexpected places. I’m also a huge fan of Snowpiercer, in all of its infant-eating glory. And, hey, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I didn’t absolutely love Pacific Rim, one of the most absurd and entertaining movies of the last decade. We also had two explosive major breakthrough films from two of my favorite new directors, Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, which are extremely difference from one another, other than signifying two big voices in American cinema entering the scene. I also really love Richard Ayoade’s the Double, an incredibly weird little movie that I don’t think enough people talk about. Similarly, you all need to see Locke if you haven’t yet, and want to see a masterclass in acting from Tom Hardy. And, screw the haters, Iron Man 3 rules, and really led to a wonderful conclusion to the story of Tony Stark, which then got immediately thrown out and retooled. But, none of them manage to hold a candle to Inside Llewyn Davis for me, one of the most beautiful, fascinating, and devastating films I’ve ever seen.
The story of Inside Llewyn Davis is heavily inspired by the world of the New York folk music scene of the early 1960’s, specifically borrowing scenes and incidents from the various life stories of the famed folk singers of that generation. They specifically mined the most from Dave Von Ronk and his memoir, the Mayor of MacDougal Street in order to build their character of Llewyn Davis. This was a time period that seemed to fascinate the Coen Brothers, and they spend years tinkering with the concept, all based off the idea of starting the film with a scene of Dave Von Ronk getting beaten up outside of a club. And, after years to crafting the story, they became ready to bring it to life. They found their Davis in Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac, who beyond his career as an actor also had had minor success singing and playing guitar in a band, giving him the capability of playing all the music in the film. Which, is a major aspect of the movie, as you could have guessed. They specifically designed the music of Llewyn Davis off of Dave Van Ronk’s career, and the Coen Brothers teamed up once again with T-Bone Burnett, who helped them handle the music of O Brother, Where Art Thou? years earlier. Almost all of the music performed in the film is performed live by the actors, several of which were musicians in their own right, all to lend some authenticity to the film. It wasn’t a perfect shoot, running into quite a few weather problems, and the near-impossibility of getting cats to act in the way that you’re intending, but the film was released to near-universal acclaim. The film made a decent amount of money and received quite a bit of accolades from critics, and quickly became one of my favorite Coen Brothers movies they’ve ever made.
The film is the rambling story of Llewyn Davis, a struggling folks singer trying to make a living in the Greenwich Village folks scene of the early 1960’s. Which, isn’t going well. He couch-surfs around the city, wearing out welcomes, and fighting to find paying gigs, which often then results in him getting into drunken fights, which is how the film begins, with Davis getting beaten up by a man admonishing him for laughing at someone’s set. We then see him waking up in the apartment of some rich intellectual acquaintances of his, the Gorfein’s. He leaves their apartment, accidentally getting locked outside with their car, which he decides he’s going to have to carry around until he can get in contact with them. He takes the cat to the apartment of Jim and Jean Berkey, two friends of his. He attempts to stay at their apartment that night, but Jean is rather irritated with Davis, namely because she’s just found out that she’s pregnant, and there’s a chance that it’s Davis’ after a drunken night together. He does get to stay there that night though, after promising that he’ll find a way to pay for an abortion. Which, means that Davis is going to have to get his hands on some money. He attempts to get some money from his sister, along the way losing the Gorfein’s cat, but his sister is fed up with his usual bullcrap, and refuses.
Thankfully, Davis gets a call from Jim, who is offering him some work playing guitar on a novelty song he’s recording. Davis manages to get to the recording studio, but due to some troubles with his agent he decides to opt for the quickest possible payment, which means that he won’t get any future residuals if the song is a hit. He then heads off to pay for the abortion in advance, only to find that the doctor who would be doing the procedure isn’t going to charge him, because a woman he had payed for in the past decided to keep the child, unbeknownst to him. He doesn’t know what to make of that, but after telling Jean that the abortion is a go, he finds a cat which he thinks is the Gorfein’s. He brings the cat to the apartment, and gets invited to dinner with some colleagues. However, when they force him to play a song, specifically one that he used to play with a former partner who committed suicide, he loses his cool and yells at them. They also realize that this isn’t their cat, and Davis is kicked out of their apartment.
Looking to get out of New York for a bit, Davis hears about a jazz pianist and his beat poet partner who are driving from New York to Chicago, and agrees to accompany them, doing some of the driving. Davis is instantly put off by both of them, especially the junkie pianist Roland Turner. And, after a disastrous dinner where Turner over-doses and the poet is arrested for insulting a cop, Davis hitchhikes to Chicago, where he hopes to impress a famous folk record producer named Bud Grossman. Davis gives it his all, but Grossman says that he doesn’t see much money in Davis’ act, and refuses to sign him. So, dejected, Davis hitchhikes back to New York. And, once there, he decides that his career in music is over. He makes up his mind to re-enlist in the Merchant Marines, and spends almost all of his money paying the dues to the union. Unfortunately, his sister has thrown out his sailor’s license, and he’s unable to afford a new one, and the Merchant Marines won’t give back the money he owned for his dues, so he’s broke. But, Jean reaches out and tells him that she got him a gig, hopefully giving him enough money to get straight. But, he ends up getting too drunk at the gig, heckling a woman, and bringing us back to the beginning of the story. He gets beaten up as a newcomer named Bob Dylan takes the stage after him, and he’s left contemplating his future in the city.
When I first saw this movie, I knew that it was more than likely going to be up my alley. I love the Coen Brothers, and I have a serious affection for this era of music. I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan, especially when this film came out, and those early days of his career spent in the Greenwich Village folk scene are rather mythic and fascinating. So, it was pretty much guaranteed that this movie was going to be something I would love. I just don’t think I anticipated becoming perhaps my favorite work that the Coen Brothers have ever made. It’s a strange film, one without any real plot, just a picaresque series of adventures with an oddly lovable lead character, despite him being a complete piece of crap. Virtually everything we see Davis do is the worst choice he could make, but you just end up feeling for the guy. Perhaps because of Oscar Isaac’s truly wonderful performance, which is when I first became truly aware of him, making me a big fan in the process. It’s a melancholy sort of film, with it’s drab and somber cinematography and it’s generally down-beat music, which I know did earn the film some hate from actual participants in this music scene who insisted that it wasn’t quite as bleak as the film makes it out to be. But it’s a powerful kind of melancholy, the story of a man who only know how to do one thing, and is unable to make it work.
Llewyn Davis is an incredibly tragic figure. It’s clear that the only thing he’s ever been good at is making music. And yet, everything in his life seems set in the path of making that work for him. He’s reached the point where playing music seems to be an almost painful process, the joy and passion stripped from it because it’s given him nothing but heartache. The loss of his partner, the success of his friends, and his general failure in life all keep him from reaching his potential, trapping him in a never-ending cycle of failure. The movie ends up looping back in on itself, showing us that Llewyn Davis is utterly trapped, but unable to give up, because there’s nothing else he knows how to do. The scene with F Murray Abraham where Davis thinks he’s finally made it, that his art is going to be enough to keep him afloat, only to hear that there’s just no money in his sound is one of the most absolutely devastating moments in film. He has fought his way to the finish line, and he’s pushed aside at the last minute, told that the only thing he’s capable of doing just isn’t going to earn him money. It’s a tragic things hearing that he’s just not good enough to make a living off of the only thing that makes him happy, meaning he’s either going to have to push aside his morals and “sell out,” or he’s going to continue to struggle in obscurity, keeping to his principles and failing. And, there’s no easy answer to that struggle. He could probably find a way to make a living with his music, but it would probably mean that he’d be unhappy with his art and his life, not necessarily making it worth it. But, it could be better than the Sisyphean task he’s committed himself to. We all wish that we’re special, that we’re able to change the world with our thoughts and our art, but it really only happens to the lucky few. Llewyn Davis is busy being his ass kicked while Bob Dylan is out there changing the world, missing his chance. But, that’s life sometimes. A day late and a dollar short, unable to make our dreams come true.
Inside Llewyn Davis was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and released by CBS Films, 2013.
Categories: Cinematic Century