Review: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

Contains spoilers.

There is never a moment in the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” when it seems the titular character may succeed. The result is a film more honest than most, offering an at times cringe-inducingly raw look at a man trying to decide between chasing an impossible dream and throwing in the towel. In turns funny and sad, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a fascinating look at what it looks like when the big break just won’t come and reality presses down.

We don’t meet Davis at his peak, but rather after the suicide of the other half of a two man act leaves him a struggling solo musician. Llewyn Davis is likeable, but hard to love. An extremely talented musician, he grapples throughout the film with the loss of his partner and his growing doubt of his own future in music. This struggle often manifests as anger, with Davis lashing out at those around him and belittling those trying to help him. Despite his occasionally cruel behavior, the audience is never led to believe Llewyn is anything less than a good man in a moment of desperation, allowing the same forgiveness shown by the characters sharing the screen.

Through Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) we’re introduced to an eclectic group of people in the burgeoning New York City folk music scene of the early 1960s, most of whom own couches Davis calls home for a night or two. The kindly Gorfeins, a professor and his wife, offer Davis unconditional support and genuinely care of his well being. Their cat, Ulysses, becomes an unwelcome companion and a vessel for Davis’ best intentions as he tries his hardest to return the escaped cat to its owners. The ever livid Jean (Carey Mulligan) carries the fed-up emotions the viewer occasionally feels, while musicians Al Cody (Adam Driver) and Jim (Justin Timberlake) appear to be what Llewyn could become if he was willing to bend his vision of a career. Meanwhile, John Goodman is vile perfect as Roland Turner, a drug addict with a distaste for folk music and a knowledge of Santeria. Garrett Hedlund, seen here as Turner’s assistant Johnny Five, could star as early late 1950s—early 1960s mysterious men in cars for his entire career and I would not be disappointed.

This supporting cast of characters does just that, supporting Llewyn in myriad ways throughout the film. From offering session work to inviting him in to dinner, Davis’ social circle wants him to succeed and works to meet the needs he is unable to meet himself. But Davis, caught up in his own insecurity, is unable to make this support a foundation for what could be a long career. When Jean gets him a gig at a local club, he nearly loses the opportunity by getting kicked out after berating a performer the night before he takes the stage. Fortunately, like all the other people in his life, the venue owner is willing to give Llewyn a second chance.

As the film draws to a close and Llewyn performs “If I Had Wings,” the title track on the album he and his partner recorded, it seems he has come around to the idea of pursuing another means of making a living. Although an attempt to re-enlist with the Merchant Marines is hampered, Davis begins making apologies and rebuilding the bridges that refused to completely burn. His final number is moving, and the applause of the audience has been well earned. But as he walks off the stage and into the alley, where he is beaten up by the husband of the woman he had heckled the night before, a young man with a guitar, harmonica, and nasally voice takes the stage.

The poignancy of Llewyn Davis, a talented young man held at bay by the industry, bleeding in the alley, while Bob Dylan, a talented young man bound for fame and fortune, is a strong endnote for a strong film that doesn’t give in to sentimental hopes. The addition in the final minutes of a well-known musician makes leaving Davis in the alley less a cliffhanger than a clear ending. Without explicitly saying Llewyn doesn’t make it in music, the film shows the viewer the future in those last moments. We know Dylan, but we don’t know Davis. Despite whatever he did after leaving that alley, he never made his name, only adding to the realism of the film.

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