Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis ★★★★½

Llewyn Davis: I'm tired. I thought I just needed a night's sleep but it's more than that.

Of gravelly grain and grit, Inside Llewyn Davis grasps at the coattails of life, showing it as a constant act of motion and movement from one thing to the next and the next after that in constant awareness that merely existing will always leave a hole in the soul that - if never filled - will follow you back to the soil from which you came.  It is a film with a story to tell of a man with a calling that has yet to and may never be answered, whose past is littered with sorrows and whose present and future is decided from one conversation to the next, and it is to be less veiled and poetic a film that takes an unfiltered and unfettered look at the life of the would-be musician Llewyn Davis, a folk singer plying his trade in a decade in American history that bore the most timeless and quintessential fruits of that musical form - the 1960s.

The titular Llewyn Davis is a man for whom music is not merely a passion or a vocation, but a last refuge from the cold and the more often than not cruel disregard of an era that shot for the stars with its guns all the while holstered in compromise and crushed dreams. With no breakthroughs on the horizon but no desire to break even by returning to a life he no longer knows (and ultimately ends up no longer owning), Llewyn cuts a tragedian figure of faux fortitude and all too real despair. He hurts and aches and he can’t tell anyone, and so an asshole he must be to stem the flow of shit coursing through his life. 

Oscar Isaac makes the fictitious Llewyn a verisimilitude of not one single man, but one of infinite numbers of men dutybound to self-destruction in the pursuit of a dream that is forever hanging just out of reach. The fact that his partner gave up on a life trying cuts deep, and the fact that a music mogul upon hearing Llewyn sing and deciding he is not profitable tells him he should ‘get back together’ with his deceased friend... well that is cruelly telling of the precipice on which Llewyn only barely is able to still stand, that between death and life, and more importantly to a life making a living through song. Isaac plays every shade of Davis’ soul with such excruciating and self-effacing effortlessness that between the raw vocal deliveries of impossibly beautiful songs and the wounded haggling with his friends, family, and all in between just to keep afloat, he honestly seems to lose himself in the role of a man losing himself and it is utterly mesmeric.

The supporting cast, from frequent Coen collaborator and acting master John Goodman to the feisty and supremely scathing Carey Mulligan to the scene stealing Adam Driver, are all positioned perfectly in their own imperfect lives and as part of Llewyn’s rapidly collapsing world. They provide moments of comic acerbism that is trademark Coen brothers, and yet moments of deep and profound introspection and insight that feel emotive and empathic on a level I haven’t been met with so powerfully in any of the directing/writing duos other works. One thing is for certain however that is emphatically a mark of the Coens and exhibited perfectly through this array of memorable and fallible characters, and that the 1960s era is captured with the same affection, specificity, and stylistic nuance that has built some of the finest bricks and mortar and beating heart worlds in modern cinema.

The songs are stunning, the story simple and spare yet machinated perfectly through the autumnal lens and dialled back motions of the camera, and the performances - especially Oscar Isaac’s - are just about perfect. And after it all, from start to end come full circle, knowing not where Llewyn will go or if he will ever change, grappling with a genuine and heavy sadness residing in the film’s hubris and at the same time a stoicism and resolve that is pitiful and yet somehow rousing, never entirely convincing but always trying... after all that, you come to realise that beneath all the layers it all comes down to the cat.

All that is pure in Llewyn is seen in his inexplicable affection for the adorable ginger cat we come to know as Ulysses; all that still yearns for wonder and inspiration inside Llewyn can be found within Ulysses and his wonder on a subway; all that is freewheeling and freefalling about Llewyn is within Ulysses; all of Llewyn’s pride and sense of place and all of that’s impermanence is within Ulysses. Ulysses in the mythological tradition by name is wrathful, a hater, and at the same time a hero, an adventurer ceaselessly journeying across the rough seas of the world and back to try and make his way home: what is that if not Llewyn Davis?

But having said that, the ending to the tale of a man whose story was never new but never gets old, a folk song of film and of life itself, an unknowable truth but a truth nevertheless that must be found one way or another, well that could only ever be inside Llewyn Davis. 

So hang me, oh hang me
I'll be dead and gone
Hang me, oh hang me
I'll be dead and gone
I wouldn't mind the hanging
But the layin' in a grave so long, poor boy
I been all around this world

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