Masterpiece Memo: Inside Llewyn Davis

 

The Cannes Film Festival may be coming to an end this year, but some of the films that came out this year will likely go on to be remembered for years to come. Surely that’s also the case for one that premiered there 3 years ago in 2013. Winning the Grand Prize of the Jury, the film was Inside Llewyn Davis, written and directed by the Coen Brothers, Joel & Ethan. It may be too early to call it a classic, but it’s not too early to call it a masterpiece.
I went to see this in the theater in January 2014 with my roommate. We both had high expectations, mine perhaps higher than hers. I loved it, she hated it. To this day when I bring it up, she rolls her eyes and makes a noise of disgust. Her main reason for hating it is Llewyn Davis. She didn’t like the character, and thought he was pretty much an asshole. I have to agree that he was an asshole, but that’s actually why I like him so much. Llewyn Davis is a man with a chip on his shoulder, and a guy determined to make nothing of himself. Let me explain…
Llewyn Davis is a folk singer in New York City in 1961 who hates folk music, and pretty much hates life. He gets his friend’s girlfriend pregnant, she wants him to pay for it, he keeps performing at the same raggedy bar where he never gets noticed by any record executives, and his former singing partner jumped off the Washington Bridge some time ago. And he doesn’t seem to be over it. So he’s the kind of guy who always comes off as cynical.
Llewyn Davis is played wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, who sings and performs many of the songs in the film. The soundtrack makes for a great companion to the film. My favorite songs, which I’ve listened to over and over, are “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”, and “Please Mr. Kennedy”, which is also performed by supporting actor Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver, who is recently best known for playing Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars film, alongside Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe Dameron.
One of my favorite aspects of this film is how it ends the same way it starts. It’s like a big circle, which in reality it’s not, it’s just the same scene shown again, but with extra insight added onto the ending. The film starts with Llewyn performing at the Gaslight, and then a stranger punching him in the face before walking off. In between, Llewyn gets locked out of the Gorfein’s apartment with their cat who snuck out into the hallway. From this point on, he’s stuck taking care of the cat as he goes from friend’s apartments to apartments to stay for the various nights.
At one point he finds out about a record executive in Chicago, and he catches a ride with a guy and his driver, played by John Goodman in another wonderful supporting performance, and Garrett Hedlund, the almost mute driver. I love the scenes between Isaac and Goodman, because most of it is comedic. So Llewyn performs for the exec in Chicago, but it doesn’t go over well, and he comes back to New York with his tail between his legs. This is the point where Llewyn realizes his dream of making it as a singer isn’t going to work out. Hence the ending, where right before that, he criticizes his friend while she’s performing. The guy who punches him is her husband.
I love the structure of the film because it’s saying that Llewyn Davis is not going to make it, and he’s just another in a long line of others who didn’t either. The brilliant moment is when the performer right after his last performance is the yet-to-be discovered Bob Dylan. What a thought that Llewyn Davis gives up right before Bob Dylan takes off.
The look of Inside Llewyn Davis is gorgeous, and was filmed by Bruno Delbonnel, who deserves a lot of credit for making this world come alive. Its look is a grainy, almost grey tint, but the colors that do show are pretty vibrant. You can tell that a lot of thought and effort went into the production of the film, and it paid off. My only complaint is that it was mostly ignored by AMPAS voters. I think it should have been nominated for Best Production Design, Best Original Song for “Please Mr. Kennedy”, Best Director, and Best Picture, alongside the 2 it was nominated for, Cinematography and Sound Mixing. I love this film so much that I even paid $40 to buy it again on Criterion Collection Blu-ray. It was worth every penny. I guess all that’s left to say is Fare Thee Well Llewyn Davis, fare thee well.
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