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New Release Review - Inside Llewyn Davis


A narcissistic singer struggles to survive in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early sixties.

Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, Garrett Hedlund, F Murray Abraham


1961. Folk singer Llewyn Davis (Isaac) spends his time bumbling around the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene following a split with his singing partner Mike, the circumstances of which are never made clear, though it's suggested Mike took his life. Arriving at the apartment of folk duo Jim (Timberlake) and Jean (Mulligan) with the intention of crashing there indefinitely, Davis is told in secret that Jean is pregnant, likely with his child. To raise the money for an abortion, Davis must set aside his staunch artistic integrity and take whatever paid work he can find.
The term "folk music" is derived from the passing of songs from singer to singer, hamlet to hamlet, land to land, in Medieval Europe. Songs would change constantly, often adapted to suit the politics of performers or to address a current situation. A song from Scandinavia may have originated in Spain, or vice versa, but has undergone such metamorphosis as to make it unrecognizable from its origin.
The protagonist of the Coens' latest, and certainly greatest, film is something of a human folk song, viewed in different ways by the various people he encounters throughout this cyclical tale. We first see him taking a beating outside a folk club (by an uncredited Ed Harris?), accused of behaving in a disruptive manner during a fellow performer's turn on stage. Our suspicions that Davis may be a bit of a git seem to be confirmed by the reception he receives from Jean, desperate to abort a child that may not even be Davis's, such contempt she holds for him. Later, however, we see another side of Davis through the eyes of those so captivated by his musical talent that they're willing to overlook his failings as a human. The Gorfeins, an upper middle class couple, continually welcome him into their home despite his rude behavior towards them. When he visits his father in a rest home, Davis Snr's face is ripe with affection as his boy plays him an Irish folk song.
I'd like to think most of us can separate the artist from the man (or woman). It's why we can cheer on the footballer whose personal life disgusts us, admire the films of the statutory rapist or tap our secular feet to the rhythms of the gospel. Inside Llewyn Davis is about those people who aren't in a position to make this distinction because they're more familiar with the man than the artist. When we hear Davis sing (thankfully Isaac is adept at carrying a tune) we're overcome with warmth, only for the Coens to show us another piece of narcissistic behavior, like a hungover dream interrupted by the opening of dawn curtains.
Screenwriting gurus preach the idea that a film's protagonist should go on a journey that sees them arrive at the climax a changed man. It's an approach that has undoubtedly worked for countless stories over the last hundred years or so of cinema but it's an incredibly naive and unrealistic notion. In reality, few of us live our lives in arcs; for most of us, life is a circle we traverse like a CD left on repeat for 70 years or so, if we're fortunate. Here, the Coens send their "hero" off on a journey but it's one he never actually completes. Despite several opportunities for redemption presenting themselves, Davis sticks to the same path he's familiar with, as do most of us.
Thankfully, the same can't be said of the Coens themselves. For a couple of decades the brothers had been stuck in a comfort zone of sub Preston Sturges style comedies. While personally I detested their comic works (until now, Blood Simple was the only film of theirs I truly admired), critics heaped praise on them, leading to a stagnation in their work as they soaked up this adoration. It took the critical backlash against such misfires as Intolerable Cruelty and the Ladykillers remake to force the Coens to challenge themselves, finally producing more interesting work like No Country For Old Men and True Grit
Inside Llewyn Davis resembles nothing else in the Coens' ouevre and is their best film by a country mile, containing an emotional maturity to match their undoubted technical ability. It's the best film about the power of music since Bertrand Tavernier's 1986 Round Midnight and Llewyn Davis takes his place alongside such great musical narcissists as Nashville's Tom Frank, Bound For Glory's Woody Guthrie and Sweet & Lowdown's Emmet Ray.
9/10


Eric Hillis

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