AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2013
By Linc Leifeste | December 6, 2013
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, F. Murray Abraham
For a film titled Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s remarkable the degree to which viewers do not get inside the title character, played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac. Of course the title is borrowed from Dave Von Ronk’s 1963 album, “Inside Dave Van Ronk,” and the Coens have said the story is based partially on Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. The film only covers a few winter days in the life of the young folk singer who is struggling to find his footing in the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene, but it quickly becomes all too apparent that Davis is a man that is going nowhere fast and his own choices are probably to blame. Of course, who’s to say that going anywhere has any meaning? And it’s clear that Davis doesn’t place much value on the traditional trappings of commercial success. In fact, it’s hard to know exactly what motivates Davis. The Coens are masters at plumbing the depths of existence by ephemerally shining a soft light on characters that often feel somehow equal parts real and cartoonish. This time around some of the more flamboyant Coen quirks are turned way down, especially in the case of Davis, but they still make welcome appearances.
The film opens and closes with Davis performing on the stage of the legendary Gaslight Cafe, fitting for a film whose heartbeat is music. Isaac proves himself to be a capable singer in the service of a soundtrack that was, like past Coen films, lovingly assembled by T-Bone Burnett. Burnett has said that all of the musical performances in the film were recorded live and it shows. While the soundtrack will probably not have the commercial success of O Brother, Where Art Thou, the music is equally integral to the film and every bit as moving and evocative. It’s hard to describe the captivating nature of the film’s musical performances, and to be fair a lot of its success may depend on the viewer’s taste, but it helps that the performers are all talented and that both the audio and video of the performances are so masterfully presented. If you’re at all familiar with the folk music of the time, you’re aware of some of its cornier elements and when you see four matching-white-sweatered-Irish men performing a cappela or an overly-earnest-Gomer-Pyle-figure break into Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing On My Mind,” your first impulse might be to laugh but the harmonies are so damn beautiful, the voices so perfect, the lyrics so well-crafted, the performances so authentic and sincere, that you just might find yourself momentarily transported. Or like me, you might find yourself both laughing and mesmerized, twin responses the Coens have long been masters of inducing.
In between those opening and closing Gaslight performances, we see Llewyn Davis do his best to scratch out a living in the big city. He’s homeless so he’s always bumming for a couch to sleep on and the record label he’s on is not about to set the world on fire with marketing so there’s not a lot of revenue coming in, just what he earns from tips at live shows. One place he regularly finds shelter is at the home of the professorial husband-and-wife Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), at one point losing, then finding, then losing their cat Ulysses (yes, the Coens’ fascination with the Oddysey is again front and center). Another place he regularly crashes is the flat of folk-duo Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), the latter of whom is pregnant with either Llewyn’s or Jim’s baby. Luckily, Jim knows a doctor who can take care of that if only he can come up with the money for his services, prompting a visit to his sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles). There’s also an excursion to Chicago in a car with jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his mysterious surly driver, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). There, Davis hopes to wow the influential Gate of Horn club manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) into giving him a regular gig and possibly becoming his manager.
Grossman, it turns out, isn’t impressed. He doesn’t see dollar symbols when he sees Davis. And that’s the beauty of the character and the film. This is not Bob Dylan, the driven genius who is equally hard on people and things but whose talent will lead to forgiveness for all his sins. Instead, Davis is just as flawed but less talented and barely driven at all. And the prospects for his changing and finding success are slim at best. Unlike Dylan, who is waiting in the wings, Llewyn Davis is a mere mortal. And that’s exactly what makes Davis a much more perfect vehicle through which to spin a yarn of 1961 Greenwhich Village and it’s cast of loveable losers, all trying to make a place for themselves in a cold, hard world. Despite his flaws and failures, every now and then Davis picks up his guitar and sings a song, and for just a short while, all the cares of the world, both his and the listeners’, disappear.