Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman
Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Drama/Music, Rated: R
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Date: January 10, 2014
Scott, it’s time to get inside one of the best films of 2013.
Better to be inside than outside on a cold day like today.
We meet Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a talented young folk musician in Greenwich Village in 1961. It’s the height of the folk scene and New York City is a swirl of music, drink, and culture. Llewyn has recently broken up with his partner. Their album isn’t selling well and he gets by sleeping on the sofas of friends and benefactors. One friend is Jean (Carey Mulligan) who is a pretty young woman married to Jim (Justin Timberlake) who is Llewyn’s best friend. The problem is, Llewyn got her pregnant and she wants him to pay for the abortion.
Llewyn agrees to pay, and we learn that Jean isn’t the first woman whose pregnancy he has aborted. After wearing out his welcome at the usual places he crashes at, Llewyn hitchhikes to Chicago to audition for a record producer. His constant companion is a cat that belongs to a friend and that Llewyn keeps losing and finding, although it isn’t always the same cat. Two odd musicians, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and Roland Turner (John Goodman) give Llewyn a ride to Chicago.
Scott, Inside Llewyn Davis is a rare film in that it isn’t about the plot, it’s about the character. We’re truly getting a look at Davis’s life and his inner workings through this one-week peek into his life. He’s not a perfect man. In fact, in most ways, he’s not a very nice person at all. But we like him because he is true to his music. He doesn’t compromise on his music in the least. He will do almost anything to play his music, his way.
I don’t know, Greg. I didn’t like him much at all. Yes, he cares about the cat, and yes, he cares about his music. But he’s pretty dislikable in most other ways. I did feel sorry for him, and perhaps the film is a cautionary tale about the way that any of us can lose ourselves in a web of misguided ambition. Llewyn Davis may represent the common human drive to succeed and find happiness. But like most people, Llewyn is his own worst enemy and seems to find a way to sabotage himself at every turn.
I enjoyed the movie because it is rich with symbolism and is populated by some of the most memorable characters we’ve seen in the movies this year. For me, the cat symbolizes the dream that Llewyn was chasing — ever elusive and not always quite the dream he thinks it is. And while trying to nurture it Llewyn ends up harming it.
For me, Davis is the classic suffering poet. And you’re right, he can’t get out of his own way. He is so focused on playing his music that he can’t make a plan for the future. He lives entirely in the present. He insults people and burns bridges and never looks back. He believes his way of playing music is pure and all other forms are beneath him.
I empathized with Davis, Scott. I think we all have this sense of what is right. But most of us can’t make the sacrifices necessary to live the pure life. We give and take and follow the middle path. I respected Davis’s commitment and his sacrifice. But it took a toll on him and his relationships. In the end, he was left alone. And that was the ultimate price he paid for perfection.
I didn’t respect Llewyn because he leeches off of people, uses people, and abandons people. My daughter is currently an aspiring musician in New York but she has a job to support herself. Llewyn is so prideful that he deems it beneath him to be self-supporting. That kind of arrogance is his undoing, and in this way Llewyn is like many heroes who self destruct — although I loathe to call Llewyn a hero because he never changes. He’s the same loser at the end that he was at the beginning.
Once again, I return to the cat. Not coincidentally, the cat is named Ulysses, the great hero of the Trojan war who spent two decades dodging enemies and obstacles while trying to get home. In the end, Ulysses makes it home — in both myth and in this movie — but Llewyn’s long and painful journey has no such happy ending. There is only the futile repetitive pattern of arrogance and self-destruction for Llewyn.
I found I liked Davis after all. Yes, he was selfish and careless with others’ feelings. But he had many of the Great Eight characteristics you mention in your book. He was smart, strong, resilient, charismatic, and inspiring. The fact that he was missing caring and selfless aligns him with villain-type characters. So I would classify Davis as an anti-hero. He’s dastardly, but I was still pulling for him. I bought in to his quest for pure music. And he carried me along through to the end.
When I rate movies I usually ask myself “what could have been better?” In the case of Inside Llewyn Davis I have no complaints. This is an open-ended story. The loose ends are not neatly tied up for us. We don’t get to see how he ends up and we don’t ever learn why his partner committed suicide. But what we do get is a look inside a man so firmly committed to his craft that nothing else mattered. That story was perfectly delivered so I give Inside Llewyn Davis 5 out of 5 Reels.
This was more of a character study than a Hero’s Journey, and as we are measuring the hero by that standard I have to give Llewyn Davis 4 out of 5 Heroes. If I had known him in person, I am sure that I would have admired him. But I’m not sure we could have been friends.
Hard to believe we saw the same man in this movie, Greg. Llewyn Davis was far from smart; he was a fool who never learned from his mistakes. I’ll credit him for being a resilient fool for picking himself up off the floor after repeating the same mistake over and over again. This pointless resilience is the only semblance of the Great Eight that I see in the man. Which is a shame because he obviously has potential, but he has so much pride and so many blinders on that he’ll never realize that potential.
But I agree with you that Inside Llewyn Davis is an excellent movie, as it stylishly depicts the human condition of hubris, ego, selfishness, and self-sabotage in full and ugly bloom. The Coen brothers have crafted an excellent tale of human futility here and I’m happy to give it 4 Reels out of 5. The true hero of the story is the cat, Ulysses. Thrown into the unfamiliar world by the bumbling Llewyn Davis, the cat shows remarkable intelligence, strength, and resilience in making it back home. I give the cat 4 Heroes out of 5.