Believe it or not, but if I had written this review right after leaving the screening of “Inside Llewyn Davis” by Ethan and Joel Coens, it would look completely different to what it is currently shaping out to be. The more I’ve been sitting on it letting my thoughts gestate and ripen, the more my appreciation for this film grows – to a point where I’m quite confident “Inside Llewyn Davis” would make my Top 10 list of this year (and it’s only February). However, it’s not an easy piece of cinema to take in and it requires the viewer to be in a certain frame of mind to get the best of it. In fact, I’d say the ticket for “Inside Llewyn Davis” should come bundled with a couple of things, one of them a fair warning that it is not a straight-up plot-driven story the viewer could expect from the Coens given their recent output (i.e. “No Country for Old Men”, or “True Grit”). The other thing I’d like to have gotten with the ticket would be the soundtrack… but more on that later.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” in short can be summarized as a week in life of a struggling folk musician (Oscar Isaac), who navigates the 1961 New York scene trying to understand his place in the universe. While it says absolutely nothing at all about the film, I’d say it would be the most accurate description of its story. And when I say ‘story’, I don’t really mean it in the literal sense, because “Inside Llewyn Davis” doesn’t really have one. Sure, there is a string of events that carry the protagonist from A to B, but the focal point of the entire film is not what happens to Llewyn, but rather who Llewyn is and what becomes of him at the end of it all.
Quite honestly, I believe “Inside Llewyn Davis” is best understood as a character study more than anything else, and the fact the protagonist was based on a real-life folk musician adds immensely to the film’s overall impact. Like a moth drawn to a flame, Llewyn Davis is best characterized as a soul on a downward spiral towards self-destruction. Upon closer inspection, his character is not even bordering on a cliché, but it’s fully submerged in the ridiculous paradox of a struggling artist… by choice. He’s struggling for money, but he’ll refuse to play music that people would actually like. He would then go on to disregard his friends (fantastic Carey Mulligan and bearded up Justin Timberlake) only to come back crawling when he needs a place to sleep. Living in a limbo of hopelessness and denial, Llewyn Davis makes an effort of failing to acknowledge the reality around him. He’d rather continue his brooding solo act oblivious to the fact his leeching off of everybody he knows in doing so.
And nothing drastic really happens that puts Llewyn Davis back on track, which I think might be the reason this film in general is not easily digestible – stuff just happens to him. It’s the collective power of every little event in his life, from losing a friend’s cat, through having his music brutally dissected, all the way down to dealing with a painful revelation in his life that slowly open Llewyn’s eyes to the world as it really is. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is not a film about these events, it’s not about sorting out a messed up life, but about a journey that takes place in the process. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to assume that this week in life of Llewyn Davis is a series of future songs one would hear him sing on stage, as if it was crucial for him to actually live the lyrics of his songs to make him become a true artist, not merely a musician.
Whether he learns anything from it, it’s a different story. Having seen the film, you can draw your own conclusions, but nothing really is said out loud, especially taking into account the visual symmetry that bookends “Inside Llewyn Davis” and charges the film with ambiguity. The answer, however, lies within the music. On that note, for a film focused on the music scene, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is mostly filled with silence, with the majority of music being actually performed by the actors on screen, which might be seen as a bold choice, but I think it adds immensely to the film and doesn’t distract the viewer. I tend to think that every single song in the film has its distinct place and a compositional meaning that underscores the progress of Llewyn’s journey towards enlightenment – one that crescendos beautifully in the final act.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is not a film you’d remember for its story, or its technical artistry, though it’s shot very beautifully and modestly at the same time. However, what makes this journey worth watching are the performances, with Oscar Isaac going above and beyond in an effort to portray Llewyn’s struggle in the most subtle way. Interestingly enough, these performances would have been nowhere near as powerful, if it weren’t for the songs that go hand in hand with the film. This is why I’d like to have been sold a soundtrack together with the ticket, so that I could go back home and retrace the story of Llewyn Davis’ right away. I think that especially in case of “Inside Llewyn Davis”, and because the film doesn’t have a score per se, one can listen song by song and understand the inner transformation Llewyn definitely undergoes. You might doubt it based on the visuals alone, but if you listen very closely to the way Oscar Isaac sings throughout the soundtrack, you’ll notice what I have in mind.
Therefore, if it weren’t for anything else, the single fact “Inside Llewyn Davis” wants you to make use of all your senses to be taken by the flow of the story, deserves recognition. I don’t think I have seen a film like that in a very long time, and even though it’s nothing like any other Coen Brothers’ film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” has found its way into my heart with its subtle musical pulse and the performances not only acted, but sung.