That was the one word that came to mind when I walked out of the cinema. Not bad, not horrible, just odd. For me, that’s strange to say, considering a lot of Coen Brothers’ films either are odd, yet enjoyable, or have very quirky characters. This one falls into the same situation, but with a main character that just isn’t having any luck at all. Let’s dive in.
The film begins in the Gaslight Café in 1961, where folk singer Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, sings a rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” It goes well with the crowd, but just as Oscar leaves the stage, the club owner, Pappi, played by Max Casella, tells Oscar that there’s a man in a suit waiting for Oscar in the alley. Out in the alley, a man obscured by shadow calls Llewyn a funny man before punching him in the face because he heckled a performer at the Café on the previous night.
Our hero stays at the Upper West Side with the Gorgeins, some friends of his. As Llewyn is leaving the apartment one day, the Gorfeins’ orange tabby cat rushes out with him and Llewyn is unable to return it since the Gorfeins are out. Unfortunately, he can’t leave it with the elevator operator. I mean, after all, he’s gotta stay there and run the elevator.
So Llewyn takes the cat to the West Village apartment of his two friends: his ex-girlfriend, Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, and Jean’s current boyfriend, Jim, played by Justin Timberlake.
Llewyn visits his manager, Mel, played by Jerry Garrison, at Legacy Records about the status of his record, Inside Llewyn Davis, but it’s not taking off. The manager insists that Llewyn focus on being known for his solo work- Llewyn’s previous musical partner, Mike, committed suicide. However, the manger does tell Llewyn that he sent a copy of his album to a producer in Chicago named Bud Grossman.
When Llewyn gets some alone time with Jean, she informs him that she is pregnant and is unsure of the father. She’d like it to be Jim, because everything that Llewyn touches turns to shit. On the chance that Llewyn could be the father, she wants him to pay for an abortion. Good luck, since Llewyn is already in need of money.
At the Gaslight Café that evening, Jim and Jean perform “Five Hundred Miles” with the help of their guest, Troy Nelson, played by Stark Sands, who was stationed at Fort Dixon.
Next morning, Llewyn makes the mistake of opening the window just as the cat scurries through it. Whoops.
Llewyn pays a visit to his sister, Joy, played by Jeanine Serralles, and wants to pick up all of his practice materials. Joy suggests that Llewyn go back to being a merchant marine, but Llewyn isn’t keen on the suggestion. However, after getting what he needs for the moment, he asks Joy to throw out a box of his papers.
A bit of good news for a change. Llewyn gets a phone call from Jim, who wants him to come help him record a song. Of course, as Llewyn is at a train station, trains happen to pass by just as he receives this news. Soon enough, Llewyn joins Jim to record with his group: the John Glenn Singers. The third singer, Al Cody, played by Adam Driver, provides backup vocals and his occasional sound effects for their rendition of “Please, Mr. Kennedy.” Once the song is completed, as Llewyn needs money now, he asks if he can receive the $200 upfront, no royalties. After this, he takes it upon himself to room with Al Cody until…well, until he finds another place to stay.
True to his word, Llewyn meets with a doctor, played by Steve Routman, to set an appointment for the abortion. There’s no charge for it, though, because of last time. Last time? As it turns out, Llewyn paid in advance for a different woman who later decided to keep the baby before she moved to Akron. This is all new to Llewyn, who appears visibly hurt by this revelation.
He later meets with Jean and the two clash. Llewyn says Jean is too busy trying to blueprint her life rather than living in the now. He calls her a careerist, but she counters by claiming he has little to no direction in life. That tends to happen when you sleep in different homes every night. In the middle of all of this, Llewyn comes across the cat, so all is well with the universe!
Except the movie’s not over. Llewyn returns the cat to its Gorfeins: Mitch, played by Ethan Phillips, and Lillian, played by Robin Bartlett. No hard feelings, so they invite him in for dinner. All goes well until they ask him to play for them. Reluctant, he begins to play “Fare Thee Well.” Sounds fine until Mrs. Gorfein joins in with the harmony, which was Mike’s part. He lashes out at the Gorfeins and their guests, telling them that he sings and plays for a living, not parlor games. This upsets Mrs. Gorfein, who leaves, but then quickly returns and notes that the cat Llewyn found is not theirs. How does she know this? Well, where’s its scrotum?
Anyway, Llewyn, with his trusted cat companion, needs to head to Chicago, so he hitches a ride with two musicians: Johnny Five, played by Garrett Hedlund, and jazz musician Roland Turner, played by John Goodman. Turner connects with Llewyn right from the start, wondering why a grown man named Lou N. Davis travels around the world with a cat. Also, he regales us with a story about someone who committed suicide not by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, but the George Washington Bridge. I mean, who does such a thing?
After a rest stop when Turner wounds up face down in the bathroom due to a heroin overdose, the three continue but, due to the snow, decide to stop the car and rest for awhile. Big mistake, as a police officer soon arrives and tells them to move along. When Johnny Five refuses and resists arrest, he’s…well, arrested. Turner, however, is still asleep, and Llewyn, still needing to get to Chicago, leaves the cat with Turner. Hey, it wasn’t his cat.
And we’ll leave the plot there.
Again, I hesitate to use the word ‘odd’ to describe my overall feelings on this film, but it’s what came to mind as I exited the cinema. If there’s one thing the Coen Brothers manage to do in many of their films, it’s put their characters through miserable and unfortunate circumstances, such as Everett in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, just to name two. Inside Llewyn Davis is not a bad film. I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is that this is a film where its central character just cannot catch a break. He’s not very likable, he always has to have a response and he’s not an optimistic character. Would your average movie-going audience gravitate toward such a protagonist? I doubt it, but it’s not impossible.
Though Llewyn himself may not be the most likable of main characters, I do appreciate his drive. As mentioned, he sings and plays music for a living, not as an act. He’s not out to change or revolutionize the music scene, just to make something for himself. This proves challenging since he now works solo and, right now, there really isn’t a market for folk music.
This leads into an interesting question I’ve read from others concerning the film and one I wonder myself: who is this film marketed toward? With musicals, which this film isn’t, you can be broad in your approach and tailor the music for all audiences. Here, the focus is very narrow: folk music in 1960s New York. Bob Dylan isn’t a household name yet. I’d be hard pressed to say there’s a giant market for such a film. Also, by the end of the film, I certainly didn’t learn more about folk music, but that’s unfair because the focus of the film isn’t on the origins of folk music. Also, I recognize that it’s unfair to ask about a film’s targeted audience because this could apply to many movies.
Yet I found myself interested not just because of the subject matter, but because of Llewyn’s journey to gain recognition. His actions feel consistent with his overall character arc as he travels to Chicago.
But I’m focusing too much on the character for the moment and less on the film’s presentation, so since I suck at transitions, let’s move to that. The cinematography can be subdued at times, with muted colors throughout. There’s no real life or vibrancy to the film and that’s fine with me because it just added to the unending misery that is Llewyn’s life. Aside from the cat’s bright orange fur, nothing pops out or is striking to the eyes. This movie isn’t about the visual or the spectacle. Much like Llewyn’s dry attitude toward many, that mood is reflected in the film’s downbeat look.
The film is paced well. Nothing ever moves too quickly or is difficult to understand, but at the same time, few of the subplots add to the overall plot. While the film’s focus is primarily on Llewyn’s life, scattered throughout the film are moments that don’t have any payoff, but are there to showcase Llewyn outside of his music life. Similar to how Clerks took place during one day in Dante and Randall’s life, Inside Llewyn Davis is just a look at Llewyn’s career, or lack thereof, with bits of the rest of his life sprinkled elsewhere in the film.
I’ve argued against filler moments that add nothing a movie’s storyline, but I make a slight exception here if only because the moments flesh out Llewyn’s character: why he’s so unlikable, how his tone and demeanor deteriorates the friendships and relationships he has and the many steps he takes in order to receive payment and, ultimately, reach Chicago. Llewyn never knows what to expect, such as when the Gorfeins ask him to play, but we as an audience go along with him because it’s the randomness of his life that made it so entertaining, to me at least. The filler moments are speed bumps in Llewyn’s otherwise bad week. Having said that, Llewyn doesn’t just sit down and accept when fate throws a speed bump in his way- he finds a way around it, which I appreciate. It shows he’s at least a fighter- albeit, with some attitude to him- and isn’t content with just staying in one place. Though that could also have to do with the fact that he realistically couldn’t be allowed to stay at one person’s home without eventually chipping in with money he doesn’t have.
The performances from the supporting cast help flesh out the film, but also provide some much needed humor. John Goodman as Roland Turner, for example, is a loud talking jazz musician who makes the Llewyn’s road trip hell, though his speculation on which bridges people should jump off of did make me laugh. He’s brash and brute, but has great power. It’s a performance that’s very reminiscent of Big Dan Teague, a character that Goodman played in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Also, Goodman, and by extension, Johnny Five, aren’t used that much, but just enough that their episode creates another inconvenience in Llewyn’s week. To me, that’s how it should be. Don’t saturate the film with so many performances and take focus away from the main character’s story.
I don’t have anything bad to say about Justin Timberlake’s performance here. He’s the nice guy in a sweater and beard. He plays it straight and isn’t out to mug for the camera, which one would expect if a director got a big name to appear in their film. Sure, Timberlake’s Jim is a bit more integral due to his relationship with Jean, but there’s never any rivalry or tension between him and Llewyn. He’s just there as the nice, charming guy who happens to be very good on the guitar and vocals. I’m glad to see that if Timberlake is indeed set on slowly making the cross from music to film, he’s making more good decisions, at least of the films I’ve seen where he played a role. Be it this, Bad Teacher or The Social Network, I’ve seen him do more good than bad, such as The Love Guru. Seriously, why’d he agree to that?
Carey Mulligan is very sharp as Jean and has a lot of ferocity in her performance, but it’s not overbearing and doesn’t verge on becoming filled with rage. Jean carries a lot of baggage and anger toward Llewyn because she’s carrying his baby. I really felt the venom in her tone when she told Llewyn that everything he touches turns to shit, but at the same time, she has a tender side. Mulligan and Timberlake’s rendition of “Five Hundred Miles” is still stuck in my head.
By the way, it’s worth mentioning that the music in the film is quite good. I might not know much about folk music, but the numbers in the movie are very catchy and help craft the film’s tone, similar to the songs in O Brother Where Art Thou?, and I don’t know why I keep comparing the two films.
But back to Mulligan, there’s just as much warmness in her performance as there is rage. Jean speaks with fondness when talking about how much she misses Mike, yet this is just after she suggested that Llewyn use double condoms before they had sex. However, in hindsight, Jean isn’t exactly blameless in this ordeal, as she wasn’t and, to my knowledge, never did take birth control and she absolves herself of any real responsibility aside from the decision to pursue an abortion. So while I enjoy Mulligan’s performance, she’s not given much to do outside of trade barbs with Llewyn or sing with Jim.
Then there’s Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis himself. Isaac’s performance drew me in from the start due to how well I thought he sang. When he performs, it’s almost as if the audience is an intrusion, similar to when he lashed out as Mrs. Gorfein when she joined in his performance of “Fare Thee Well.”
Again, Llewyn is by no means a likable character: he’s short-tempered and can be an absolute prick to almost everyone he comes in contact with. He doesn’t have a home to stay in, isn’t the most attentive when it comes to cats, always feels the need to have a comeback and doesn’t seem to have a lot of passion or vigor in his life.
In the traditional sense, Llewyn Davis isn’t a character we’d gravitate toward because there’s little to like about him, yet it’s his dark sense of humor in this dreary world, coupled by his perseverance to make a name for himself, that kept me interested. Here’s a man who is in constant sorrow and has seen trouble all his days. He bid farewell to his partner and now must make it all on his own since, aside from couch space and holding onto his stuff, Llewyn isn’t in the habit of relying on other people all that often.
More than that, success is always outside of his reach. He’s living in the moment and just trying to make it to the next day, not thinking down the line. That, I suppose, would give weight to him calling out Jean for wanting to blueprint out her entire life, but the difference is that Jean and Jim are, commercially, fine. When they perform at the Gaslight Café, the audience joins in, much to Llewyn’s surprise. It makes sense that he’d want to cut Jean down a peg not just for thinking of the future, but even for gaining the success he so desires. So in addition to being a jealous character, Llewyn is self-absorbed and concerned with his own well-being, with the rare exception when he thinks about the child he didn’t know existed.
And yet his passion for being a musician is believable. He sounds very soulful when he strums his guitar and I enjoyed each of his performances, though credit for that rightly goes to the great job I found Oscar Isaac did playing this character. His mood fits well within the film’s near lifeless color palette. I kept wondering to myself whether Llewyn would ever catch a break or find some semblance of happiness, but rarely does it come for him.
Inside Llewyn Davis is not an uplifting film that will leave you with a sense of optimism and drive for adventure when you leave the cinema. It’s an interesting character study about a man who plays music for the love of the art, but exists in a time where his particular brand of music has not caught on yet. It’s a film about perseverance and pushing through every impossible situation. Again, ‘odd’ is a strange word to use when describing my initial reaction to this film, but as with other films they’ve directed, the Coen Brothers manage to inject their own brand of dry, sardonic humor that lighten the otherwise gray mood of this movie. For me, this film was reminiscent of Blue Jasmine: the movie focuses on a not so likable character who we as an audience should detest, but something about them makes us root for them to push on despite the adversity they face.
The strength of Inside Llewyn Davis comes from its strong acting performances and the plot centered around the week of an unlucky son of a gun. In the traditional sense, it’s not a film that many would gravitate toward due to its muted tones, smart-alecky protagonist, somewhat absurd plot twists and a lack of overall optimism. From that, it has the potential to alienate a lot of casual moviegoers who just want to sit back and have a good time, but for those interested in a well done character study with quirky characters filled with the black humor the Coen Brothers are known for, Inside Llewyn Davis may just be for you.