The Film Gang

Inside Llewyn Davis

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Listen to the review by Dennis Morton, above.
 
Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen Brothers latest film. Because it’s more or less plotless, and primarily a long character study, it’s been a challenge to write about. As the title suggests, the character under scrutiny is Llewyn Davis.

Llewyn is a folk singer, in his early thirties. Like his father, he’s a veteran of the merchant marines, but his dream is to make it in the burgeoning folk music scene of the early 60s. Much of the film is set in Greenwich Village, and in particular, the Gaslight Café, a coffee house that was located in the basement of an address on MacDougall Street.

The scuttlebutt is that Dave Van Ronk, a minor but persistent luminary in the world of folk music, was the Coen Brothers’ inspiration for the film. In 1979 I heard Van Ronk perform, in a small town in upstate New York. And I’ve been listening to Van Ronk on the web as I’ve been thinking about Inside Llewyn Davis.

Remarkably, the Coen Brothers, in my opinion, have discovered and inspired, in Oscar Isaac, a musical talent even larger than Van Ronk’s. Isaac is the eponymous Llewyn, and he’s in just about every scene of the film. Isaac is an extraordinary actor and almost as fine a musician. And, he has a much better voice than Dave Van Ronk.

One of the questions posed in the film is this: how is it that a fellow with so much talent and determination cannot gain traction in the rather small world of American folk music. Llewyn is in the right place. The Village, in the early 60s, was the mecca of the movement. He even knows some of the right people – including a club owner and a record producer.

But Llewyn is perpetually broke. Today, we’d refer to him as homeless. His possessions consist of a guitar, and a small satchel. Fortunately, he has enough friends with vacant couches to provide him shelter from the snow and the rain.

Llewyn has other problems, too… most noticeably – a short fuse. Llewyn is angry.

And the Coen Brothers spend much of the film providing us with the reasons why. Unfortunately for Llewyn, we understand the reasons considerably before, and better than, he does. But we, too, are left mostly in the dark.

If you’ve seen the previews you know there is a cat in this movie. Llewyn’s relationship with the cat epitomizes the range of his emotional life, and ultimately, the limits of his commiseration. We see him at his best and at his worst. It was an act of genius on the Coen Brothers part to use a helpless animal to reveal the deepest parts of a human being.

I’ve watched Inside Llewyn Davis five times, and each time, I find more to like. I suspect I’ll watch it at least a few more times. I love the music. And the performances of the supporting actors are terrific, especially John Goodman’s, as a brilliant and mean spirited jazz musician.

Assuming you may watch the movie only once, be on the lookout to discover the nature of the relationship that Llewyn’s former singing partner, a guy named Mikey, had with the other characters in the film – especially with the Gorfeins, an older couple. I’d love to hear your theories.

Needless to say, I recommend Inside Llewyn Davis.

This is Dennis Morton.

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