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Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) - Coen & Coen

Ulysses in the underworld

The set-up? When Robert Zimmerman debuted at the Gaslight Club in Greenwich village in 1961; it was a twin bill: who was the other folk singer?

As we begin the film, Llewyn Davis' career has decidedly entered a period best described as limbo. He's on a slow train to nowhere. His personal life has a lot drama―ironic―since he has no difficult expressing his thoughts, but plenty of tsuris expressing his feelings. There's a moment when Llewyn watches Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) perform onstage with new comer Troy Nelson and the audience bursts out with the chorus, he turns in his chair to look back at them incredulous: what the hell is this? As a folk purist, this as a very bad development, but the scene is on the cusp of a serious change ... it's about to go mainstream.

He's heard from Troy (the kid's got four months left in his military service before he can devote himself full time to folk music) that there's a certain producer in Chicago looking for new talent. He'll jump at that chance.

He travels through a frozen hell to get there. His audition is quietly evocative. He plays to an empty house before a single spectator, or more pointedly, a single appraiser (the only thing missing is the jeweler's loupe) who watches his performance like a fox before the chicken coop.

"I don't see a lot of money here"

But he does smell talent. And suggests an alternate route to fame and fortune (and his percentage) Unfortunately, Llewyn not interested in harmonizing, and even less in compromise. So he heads back to New York, without stepping through the gates of success, choosing instead to keep wandering in the show business netherworld.

This uncelebrated folk singer might actually be a stand-in for the Coen brothers, who despite being gifted filmmakers, still make that same pilgrimage before each and every film to secure financing. Remember, the year 2013 was the biggest BO in the history of mankind. Although they can play the game, being surrounded by philistines who conflate financial success with personal genius and artistic triumph; surely they must feel the chill way down deep in their bones.

I don't think it's a mistake when Llewyn hits the road for Chicago; occupying the same car are two genuine artists. A jazzman and his assistant, Johnny Five. A cursory glance at Roland Turner (John Goodman) reveals he's got sleep apnea, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome and maybe even narcolepsy. I ruled out a serious heroin addiction, because if he was a junkie, he'd be 300 pounds lighter. And yet he's still on the road at his age, performing jazz, still playing all the notes. His assistant is a man of few words, yet when he does speak, he turns out to be a wordsmith. Unfortunately, Johnny Five can't pass a cop without miraculously drawing his fury and being deposited in every flea bag jail house in the county. These guys will never make the big time, they're too ornery, too opinionated and too impolite. But this has nothing to do with their creative abilities.

All the folk artists in the film are first rate. They're singing their songs, telling their stories; yet even in this decidedly high brow milieu of goatees, berets and finger snapping, what separates the chafe from the wheat are not the ideas, but the commercial templates: those little details that catch the eye and caress the ear. Is the artist photogenic? Troy Nelson's wholesomeness is money in the bank. Would you like to sleep with that performer? As Jim and Jean begin to pull away from the pack in Greenwich village night club circuit, Jean's sweaters are getting a little tighter. Not unlike the Coen brother's underlying template of using real people with real histories of success and failure for their film, thinly disguised.

There's a few nice details.
  • The film is populated without the usual stable of surgically chiseled Hollywood faces. The character actors here have great faces that look lived in, ears that are used for listening and eyes that have seen delight. They've laughed and cried so much, they're getting wrinkles.
  • The car accident; the perfect metaphor for his situation; although most people don't limp away quietly, they get angry.
  • The Town of Akron, in the distance, in the darkness: it vaguely resembles a guitar.
  • In Al Cody's apartment, there's a picture of a suspension bridge (the George Washington?) over the couch he's going to sleep on. A subtle remainder of his friend.
  • The recurring image of figure looking out a wintry window.
The humor in the film is really sly and dead pan, summed up perfectly by the image of Llewyn stomping through a snow drift, but if you notice, there are clear patches all around him, he could choose not to trudge miserably through the snow if he so wanted. His moments of recognition are usually related to his old man. In any other film, a song about some schlub wandering around with a hangman's noose asking people to do him in, would have the audience rolling in the aisles, the fact we take this troubadour seriously, is a tribute to the Coen's craftsmanship.

The absolute best thing about the film is it's structure. The trip to Chicago is the actual beginning of the film but it's been edited forward into the story. If you notice, she is rather affectionate with him when he returns, she hasn't gotten the news yet. This makes the essential recurring moment of the artist as one of eternal compromise. On the surface, the film appears morose and desperate (all Llewyn's songs seem to be about death or dying) but like ticking money bombs that have the time to travel all around the world for weeks and months on end before detonating; the film is actually filled with hitting it "big" moments. You can't throw a rock here without hitting someone who is going to be famous. And of course, the story is a temporal loop that's repeating over and over again endlessly like some mythic tragedy.

It goes without saying, I loved that idea of the economic underworld. The process of self-valorisation has reached such a point, where those don't have a private jet or spend the weekend on their own personal island are not even worthy of direct sunlight. These losers toil deservedly in darkness, which is now equated with personal failure and deliberate self-destruction. I would have loved had the film had a slightly darker, conspiratorial tone, this is only vaguely hinted at in the film. The Capitalist God's are furious at his integrity and conspiring against him; the poor schmo thinks he can't catch a break. But at least we know the answer to that trivial pursuit question.
Inside Llewyn Davis -