Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): Pure Transcendental Coens Magic

Language : English | Running Time : 105 Minutes | Director : Joel & Ethan Coen

The 60s in America. For a music fan, it is the decade when folk music really took over. Bob Dylan came to notice and the rest as they say, is history. For a person who reads books, it was the time when The Beat Generation’s legacy was confirmed. Ginsberg quoting men and women started to be a thing and Greenwich Village came to be known as the birthplace for cultural movements of the 60s. Inside Llewyn Davis is a story about a man who was part of the place but someone who was at the sidelines, when things were beginning to take off. The Coen Brothers make a period film of a folk musician in The Village, trying to make it big.

Oscar IsaacLlewyn Davis(Oscar Isaac) is a folk musician who has a solo record out but it isn’t bringing in the cash. He doesn’t have a place to stay and keeps crashing at his friends, people who seem to be more capable of being at the right place at the right time. Llewyn Davis is not a likeable man. He is what one would consider a pain in the ass and that isn’t a loving trait to have. Among the many guitar wielding musicians playing at different venues in the city, Llewyn Davis just ads to the count. A time period when the crowd was just moving away from jazz to the sounds of folk music, Llewyn Davis, though talented, is not a crowd puller and neither his music money spinning as Bud Grossman(F.Murray Abraham), straightforwardly puts it.

A gig in the usual joint, The Gaslight Café, is a clear indicator of the kind of response one can expect for the music that Llewyn Davis sings. Songs about hangings and maternity labor death aren’t ones that the people are going to buy. The scene with Bud Grossman is just reiterating the fact that we come to realise through the response reserved for Jim(Justin Timberlake) and Jeane(Carey Mulligan) compared to Llewyn Davis. A gig with Jim in the studio where “Please Mr. Kennedy” is recorded is another scene where you understand the kind of music Llewyn Davis is into and the difference in what the audience likes to hear. The recording session is hilarious and it is something that we’ve come to expect from The Coen Brothers.

The story though isn’t just about a failed artist as it looks on the surface. A week with Llewyn Davis is more than just about a man who is trying to move away from the domestication that his friends and family are looking for but to embrace the soul of music and make something out of it. It is a look at  America of the 60s. Like I’ve already mentioned, the 60s were a period of cultural transition in America. A road journey with a jazz musician,Roland Turner(John Goodman) with a penchant to be insulting of anything and everything and a Beat poet, Johnny Five(Garrett Hedlund), is an education of the cultural shift. The late 60s was a time when music also came to be associated with psychedelia and substance abuse, here we have Roland Turner getting hit on heroin but otherwise, there is rarely a mention of drugs. The early 60s of America was yet to see the psychedelic culture take over. In Johnny Five, we have the transition of American poetry to the Beat generation’s rambles. The on-the-road kid trying to understand the world, trying to be tough. The Coen Brothers capture the America of early 1960s quite accurately and place us in a cultural potbelly that’s getting ready to change – the introduction of a young Bob Dylan with the harmonica at The Gaslight Café a clear indication of the shift that’s about to take place.

Inside-Llewyn-Davis-trailer-It is not a “plot” script. It is a journey with a man through the cultural shift of America in the 1960s and the journey of an artist who has been through quite a big deal. Llewyn Davis is a pain, he isn’t likable but we sure end up grudgingly admiring some things about him. The outburst at the Gorfeins’ when Mrs. Gorfein tries to take up Mike’s place or his reluctance to join a trio that Bud Grossman wants to start are both indicators of what the loss of his friend and musical partner means to him. His relationship with Jim, Jeane and even Pappi(Max Casella), the owner of The Gaslight Café, are edgy and it is obvious that Mike held them together. There’s a reference to Mike whenever Llewyn meets people in the movie, indicating the close bond and how loved the unseen man was, a glue that held the group together. Throughout, we sense that Llewyn Davis is something better than he ends up being but there’s no likability, no marketability for such a man and it is an interesting take on how for every Bob Dylan there are hundred others who’ve failed to make it.

The Coen Brothers, in their usual quirky light touch, build a screenplay that brings out a loving film which is wonderfully crafted and acted. Roland Turner cutting his stories short to start another new one, the secretary at Mel, the agent’s place, who seems hilariously out of sorts, Johnny Five, laconic and lying about not having cigarettes, the young aspiring musician, Troy Nelson(Stark Sands), slurping his cereal loudly and working for the Army to discipline himself are the kind of oddball characters that make a Coen Brothers film. They populate the place with oddball characters and make them work like only the brothers can. Bruno Delbonnel’s winter cinematography captures the mood of Llewyn Davis’ bleak life and the music simply soars. One of the best soundtracks to have been made use of in movies, some of the performances are heartbreaking and beautiful, particularly “The Death Of Queen Jane”.

Oscar Isaac breathes life as Llewyn Davis. Maudlin, angry and forever a pain to the people around him, Llewyn Davis couldn’t have been better acted. Oscar Isaac particularly excels when confronted and has to find a way out the mess he is in. It also helps a lot that he is very good in the scenes he has to perform music. He does have a beautiful voice. He brings so much realism to the role that the movie gets a realism that we usually tend to associate with documentaries. Carey Mulligan as Jeane is a plus. A strong love-hate relationship with Llewyn Davis, she gives a strength to the film by giving credibility to her confrontational scenes with Llewyn Davis. I wish Justin Timberlake acts more and more because it is always a pleasure to see him on screen in these little parts where he brings so much freshness and likability. John Goodman, a Coens regular, is extending the kind of role he loves playing for the brothers – the unsympathetic, insulting man who has a penchant for words. The scene in the car where he talks insults Davis’ music and the cat he is carrying is particularly hilarious. The actors serve a purpose to bringing about a part of Davis character and never do you feel that they are overstaying their welcome. The domesticated sister gives us small time to root for Llewyn Davis and also hate his guts. Something interesting to notice is the cover of the album “Inside Llewyn Davis”. It is similar to the cover of  “Inside Dave Van Ronk”, the album of Dave Van Ronk, a man on whom Llewyn Davis is loosely based on and inspired the Coen brothers to make a film on the 60s folk scene of Greenwich Village.  The Coen Brothers have a gem of a script, one that is refreshing and beautiful.

John GoodmanInside Llewyn Davis is a portrayal of America in the early 60s, the depression that comes with the time and the background to the cultural shift about to take place. It is also a story of a failed artist, one we grudgingly admire and feel for but at the same time wouldn’t be friends with.

Inside Llewyn Davis is the most heartbreakingly beautiful film of the year with a soundtrack for the ages. Like Llewyn Davis is told at the merchant navy he is enlisting for that he isn’t current, the struggle and the idea of the movie might not be current but the Coen Brothers transport us to a beautiful place. Llewyn Davis believes that the purity of his music will transcend everything else. The Coens make us believe that original art of this nature can transcend the things we already know about struggling artists and make the movie new and something to treasure.  This is not to be missed and not to be forgotten. It is another feather in the cap for the Coen Brothers, one they can be very proud of.



2 thoughts on “Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): Pure Transcendental Coens Magic

  1. I have never really been too fond of Coens movies. But Inside Llewyn Davis was just wonderful. The trails and tribulations of an artist are depicted wonderfully making it impossible to not root for this character, however egoistic and mean he may be. Oscar Issac is excellent in the lead role. The rest of the performers such asMulligan, Timberlake are impactful even in a limited screen time. Even a scene in which the cat looks at Llewyn rather endearingly as he makes an escape from Goodman’s car after his driver is taken away by the cops is so impactful. The relation between Lewis and his sister as you rightly mentioned in superb and forms one of the best subplots of the film.

    The soundtrack is simply wonderful. Of all the Coen films I have seen so far, I feel this is their best effort yet.

    • You seriously need to check out No Country For Old Men. ILD didn’t come an inch close to that film.

      On a side note, warning to those who haven’t watched ILD: Stark Sands is a misophonist’s nightmare.

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