Inside Llewyn Davis ★★★★

Let me state at the outset here that white boy folk music is not a genre I enjoy much. There's a few in the genre I can appreciate--who doesn't love Bob Dylan?--but by and large, ugh. There's a scene in Inside Llewyn Davis where John Goodman is slothing in the back of a car headed for Chicago, a car driven by Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), and he's just railing folk music for its simple notes, its simple chord progressions. It's supposed to, I think, be a scene highlighting the pretentious stupidity of Goodman's character (not to mention being another scene of absurdity in Davis's life), but I was just there nodding along--finally, something in this movie I can totally cosign. (Even while being totally cognizant that his critique would go double for the slacker rock music I favor.)

Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about Llewyn Davis, a 1960s folk singer. As far as I'm concerned, he's pretty middlin'. Just enough flair to his guitar playing that I wouldn't hate his performance were he opening up for someone while I chugged a beer or two at the local venue, right? A voice that isn't nails on a chalkboard. But it's just so-so stuff as far as I'm concerned. Most people in the movie seem to agree with me. He's not selling records, few venues are clamoring to book him.

Most of the film feels like a slice-of-life type deal. We're following Davis as he bums cigarettes and couches ("Living on couches is homelessness," so goes a local PSA that plays on the radio). He's trying to navigate the absurdities of his life, which take on an almost Candide-esque shimmer as the shit avalanche of his life gains steam. Well, maybe it's more like the slow creep of lava edging down a mountain--the lack of actual plot here keeps scene-to-scene momentum fairly tempered.

As with some other Coen Bros films, Inside Llewyn Davis operates on a plane of thought and narrative structure that I just don't understand. I can feel layers of meaning and implications skittering under the surface--things that most reviewers seemed to have picked up on and allude to in their reviews. Things that I cannot grasp. A good example is the guy who beats him up twice--once at the beginning, once at the end--and tells him the same thing each time, neither character being particularly aware of this little record-skip in the narrative. People draw parallels between Davis and the cat(s?), and I'm just like, "It's a dude with an absurd storyline relating to cats." That's as deep as I can go with it. But this inability for me to dive deeper only allows me a surface interaction with Inside Llewyn Davis (and Barton Fink, and Miller's Crossing).

Luckily this isn't a death knell for my enjoyment of a film (well, except Barton Fink. FUCK that movie)--the texture provided to Llewyn Davis's life is interesting, fantastic, and absurd enough that I can totally enjoy just about every scene as they crop up. There's a gritty reality to Davis's life that feels compelling, and through the grit there is a certain poetic beauty. Yeah, his music kind of sucks (my words, not yours), but his music doesn't even matter. You can be a kind of sucky folk musician and still be compelling, and Inside Llewyn Davis is a fine example.

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