Cinema essentials: An in depth look on Llewyn Davis

Photo Courtesy of
Photo Courtesy of

Jeff Turner

“Inside Llewyn Davis” was a masterstroke. The secret to its genius is hard to notice at first, and is also hard to notice unless you’re a specific kind of person. “Llewyn Davis” is fundamentally about creative people, specifically, the ones that can’t make it, which is most of them. It’s a movie about a man in panic, a man who wonders what he did with his life, and why, if he’s spent so long working on his craft, and getting better, then why does he appear to be stuck in place.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of Joel and Ethan Coen’s great films, and that is not a statement to make lightly. It combines humor with pathos and genuine tragedy. Oscar Isaac is a true ingénue in the lead; he looks worn out, wrung out. He extolls the life that you’d expect from a legendary actor.

The rich tapestry of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography has struck me on repeat viewings. Like photorealism struck against the background of a painting. It feels like a place out of time, like moments that will never die. Llewyn’s failure is immortal.

One scene that really gets me is near the end, when Llewyn is in the bar and he’s drunk. He’s heckling a performer from Arkansas and several people intervene. Eventually the owner throws him out, and Llewyn shouts “I hate folk music!”

I hate folk music. That gets me. The frustration. The simple feeling of never going anywhere. And for what?

For folk music. What did folk music ever do for him? He’s a perfectly capable folk musician, but people just don’t like him. Years of that could drive a person mad. His life is locked in a similar psycho, yelling at people because he needs money, losing people’s cats, getting yelled at by ex-lovers.

Llewyn has failed. A lesser film might try to give him answers, or some solidarity or some happiness. The Coens are more interested in open ends, and in medias res. What I love is that the Coen’s script demonstrates Llewyn’s quirks and fully fleshes him out. You see several times during the film Llewyn’s lack of foresight and how his arrogance becomes his own folly. The Coens use of reincorporation through this whole film is brilliant.

Another line I like is earlier in the film. Llewyn is talking to his sister, and she’s trying to convince him to quit his music and rejoin the Navy. Llewyn doesn’t want to ‘just exist.’ Her response:

“Existing? Is that what we do outside of show business? It’s not so bad, existing.”

You do not go into a creative field unless you think you are going to make something of it. People want to be famous, they yearn to be rich and loved, for whatever reason they’ve chosen. The thing about the people that make it, is that they make it, on the backs of the 97 percent who have failed.

That’s one of the things that’s powerful about the movie near the end. When Llewyn finishes his set, another performer goes on. He has a sound like Bob Dylan (Llewyn Davis is based off of Dave Van Ronk, who was a folk artist who almost became Bob Dylan). He plays a different variation of the same song that Llewyn had just finished.

We do not see the whole performance, but one can imagine that musician had a good night.

Llewyn… not so much. Locked in a tragicomic trap of his own design.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is available on DVD and Blu-ray through CBS films (and the Criterion Collection!)