Review-“Inside Llewyn Davis”

Andrew Marvin, Writer

Movies rarely create truly realistic characters. To do so is admirable–to do it well is exceptional. “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a Coen brother’s production, is a minor miracle. It gives us a protagonist who we know we should hate but cannot because he seems so real. Llewyn Davis is not a construct—he is a human being. He is a selfish and unthinking failure of a human being, but we understand him and sympathize with him because we all, on some intrinsic level, know him.

Of course Davis is not to blame for all of his shortcomings. He just happens to be in the midst of one of the lowest points of his life: his partner has committed suicide, his agent is unable to pay him, and he is lucky if he can find a place to sleep. Lugging his guitar from club to club, Davis barely manages to scrape a living by playing folk music. While most of his like-minded cohorts are climbing social ladders and securing lucrative record deals, Davis simply cannot catch a break despite his talent. Add to all of that a few random beatings and an escapee cat, and his bitterness becomes understandable.

In exposing the mind-boggling impact of luck and chance, “Inside Llewyn Davis” runs the risk of bottoming out on pessimism. With the Coen brothers at the helm, it never sacrifices its dark humor or spring of step. This is material quite unlike anything they have ever dealt with before, neither as bizarre as “The Big Lebowski” nor as grim as “A Serious Man.” It most resembles “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” in both its musical focus and its “Odyssey”-inspired story, but carves out a specialized niche in their storied filmography as a melancholy, introspective account of a single man’s misfortune.

Davis himself similarly resembles many of the Coens’ previous protagonists while also establishing himself as a wholly original character. From Barton Fink to The Dude to Larry Gopnik, the Coens seem to specialize in monitoring the trials of luckless losers in a world that does not want them. Davis is an oddity even among those characters because he is the first that they look at with a truly sympathetic eye. Not once does the film suggest that he is somehow inferior to his more successful peers. Yes, he is a victim of the vagaries of fate, but he still deserves some degree of respect. Though Davis sinks lower and lower, well past the point where anyone else would set aside the guitar in favor of a steady job, he continues limping on with a guitar in one hand and a house cat in another. His persistence is admirable and his reluctance to yield is all too human.

Part of the reason Davis is so convincing is because everything around him is equally so. His setting–Greenwich Village in 1961, displayed mainly in cold hues and steady, painterly shots—is depicted with a restraint rarely found in period pieces. The music itself, both inside and outside of these clubs, is nothing short of magnificent. Most are played by Davis, who is in turn played by Oscar Isaac, a relatively unknown young actor as adept at singing and strumming a guitar as he is at portraying Davis’ Sisyphean struggle. His oddly charismatic performance is one of the year’s best, and his depiction of a sympathetic jerk is painfully authentic.

Perhaps the Coens themselves are familiar with the pain of talent undiscovered. After all, their films connect with audiences about as often as they wildly miss. Maybe there is an explanation here for the raw emotion they reveal in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” We never feel Davis’ depression because we are afforded an outsider’s perspective into the events of the movie. What we feel instead is bittersweet, melancholic, and strangely beautiful. This is a deeply affecting film created by two of America’s finest talents. Fortunately, unlike Davis, they knew exactly what they were doing.

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