This 2013 film directed by the Coen Brothers is a brilliant work of understated beauty. True to its title takes us into the life of the eponymous character (Oscar Isaac) and his everyday struggle to eke out a livelihood in New York’s Grenwich Village.
Our “Hero” begins the story by getting the pulp beaten out of him in an alley. The brutality of this moment is enhanced by the fact that we really haven’t the foggiest idea in regards to what is happening. Llewyn wakes up the next morning in a nice house, clearly not his own, and leaves with his guitar in hand to start the day.
The aura of authenticity that this picture exudes is absolutely amazing. Oscar Isaac, of Star Wars fame, is also an excellent musician. He broadcasts through his music, just as much, if not more emotion than through his acting. Sometimes jovial, sometimes crestfallen, his singing lends the movie a certain versatility that serves it quite well. As if that wasn’t enough, the soundtrack also features a song with Marcus Mumford, a musician with whom an Americana enthusiast can never go wrong.
A son of a blue-collar worker, Llewyn constantly struggles with the nature of his actuality. He isn’t the successful musician that he always pictured himself becoming. He has worked on the water before; constantly financially strapped, Llewyn wants and needs money. At the same time however, he is afraid of simply “existing”, which is how he describes his now catatonic father’s state of being. Similarly he condemns his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) for being a “careerist”.
The Coen’s knack for rich characterization is no less powerful here. There are Jim and Jean, lovers for whom music is nothing more than a means to an end. All they really want is to start their family. Then there are the two men that Llewyn rides to chicago with, Johny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and Roland Turner. The former a soft-spoken beat poet, the latter a loud-mouthed jazz purist who ridicules Llewyn, his music, his way of life, and even his dead-by-suicide friend’s choice in bridges. Then, there are the Gorfein’s, the music loving couple that are always welcoming to Llewyn no matter how unpleasantly he treats them. He storms out of the house one evening, and the next time he arrives at the door to apologize, Mitch Gorfein seemingly not remembering the incident at all, invites him in for dinner.
At the plot’s conclusion, we find out, that the beginning scene wasn’t really the beginning, and most of what we’ve seen has been an extensive flashback. Just after a fellow with a familiar shrill nasally voice takes the stage Llewyn exits the gaslight club and gets beaten up, just as we’ve seen before. This time however, the beating takes on a whole new meaning; the destruction of Llewyn’s career. You’ve heard of Bob Dylan, but llewyn Davis? I doubt it.
The attacker gets in a taxi and drives away, leaving Llewyn bloodied in the alley. Llewyn looks at the passing car and mutters “Au Revoir”. Depressing, I know. But it is at this point that Inside Llewyn Davis goes from being a comparable work with a fairly decent soundtrack, to a more elevated status. This movie is a masterpiece.
In ending the story with our protagonist at rock bottom, the Coen Brothers show us that it isn’t the journey’s end that matters, but the middle; the struggle to transcend existence. In a world that is content just to survive, Llewyn Davis will not be satisfied unless he can thrive.