BY AFRA NARIMAN
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Directed By: The Coen Brothers
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Adam Driver
Set in New York City, 1961, a striving guitarist/folk singer named Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac), who’s character is loosely based on the life of real-life iconic folk singer, Dave Van Ronk, navigates the streets of Greenwich Village in search of a breakthrough opportunity. Davis, who is presented to us as slightly sadistic and pessimistic about life, endures constant struggles and obstacles both in his professional life and his personal life. On his journey towards pursuing a breakthrough as a musician, he finds himself on a road trip with strangers headed to Chicago, where he hopes to meet with a music mogul who may prove to be the big break he’s hoped for. The film highlights the constant ups and downs of a struggling artist in 1960’s New York and gives us a glimpse of the famous streets of Greenwich Village, which has become a historical and iconic city in New York, partly due to it’s reputation as an incubator for great musicians over the decades.
Unlike any other film written/directed by the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis is a true narrative; a character study of an ailing folk singer, trying to make a name for himself in one of the most musically competitive eras and musically iconic cities in American history. Although they have conjured up an extremely impressive body of work throughout their career, most notably No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Barton Fink, and cult-favorite, The Big Lebowski; Inside Llewyn Davis seems to be their most perfect film. They reached deep into their bags as both filmmakers and as members of the human race, to create a beautiful and truly important piece of cinematic art, that highlights the human experience, the human condition of suffering and covers the basic spectrum of human emotions in its provocative exploration of love, loss, sorrow, distress, anger, envy, fatigue and the feeling of defeat that many of us deal with at some point or another in our lives when on our path towards following our passions, especially if they are artistic ones such as is the case for Llewyn. The world we live in is not designed for artists to be valued the way many of them deserve to be. The road to “making it” can often times be difficult, and at times unbearable. Inside Llewyn Davis tells the story of one individual who is still mourning the untimely and saddening suicide of his partner, while also trying to navigate the difficult, unbearable path to relevancy as a folk singer all by himself. The character-cameo of Folk legend, Bob Dylan, at the end of the film, playing at the same venue as Llewyn had, not only played homage to one of the great artists of the generation, and the prominence of musical talent in Greenwich Village in the 1960s; it also showed that everybody has to start somewhere… In no way consisting of a classic Disney ending, but rather more congruent with a classic Greek tragedy, the film leaves us with a lot to think about.
One “fan-favorite” element of the film was the inclusion of the orange cat, whose role was played by both Ulysses, the Gorfeins’ cat, and the random look-alike cat that Llewyn found wandering the streets of the village. The Coen Brothers’ background in Philosophy has always been partly noticeable in many of their films, as much of their work deals with exploring the essence of a human being and highlighting the struggle between the good and bad in all of us. Though, it is in this film, Inside Llewyn Davis, that their philosophical tool kit is most recognizable. Along with the array of emotional human conditions explored through Llewyn Davis’ journey, the cat, whose journey in the film was in many ways parallel to Llewyn’s own, is perhaps another example of the Coens’ philosophical approach when writing the story. A popular theory, that when watched a second time, seems to be evidently true, is that the cat represents Llewyn himself. The constant “hide-and-seek,” “found-then-lost” narrative of the cat, is symmetrical to the significant moments of Llewyn’s own narrative. He seems to lose the cat at moments where he feels lost himself, such as shortly after finding out that Jean is potentially pregnant with his child or when he decides to leave the cat behind when opting to hitch hike the rest of the way to Chicago. At both moments in the film, Llewyn was at a crossroads, or a momentary time of uncertainty for his character. On the other hand, at moments where the cat was found, it seemed like things were looking up for him, as much as things ever did. This is most noticeable near the end of the film when Llewyn returns to the Gorfeins to apologize for being disrespectful earlier in the film, only to find that they have found their lost cat, Ulysses, which it was believed, Llewyn had lost. The cat’s role in the entirety of the film’s story was minuscule, comical; but not necessary for the story’s overall arch. It was simply the Coen Brothers’ imagination.
Some minimalist films have their lapses, or perhaps the directors try too hard to add something that doesn’t really have to be there, or forget to develop certain characters or side-plots successfully. None of those are the case in Inside Llewyn Davis. We become absorbed into the story through brilliant writing by the Coens, superb acting by every member of the cast and the amazing musical performances by the film’s lead actor, Oscar Isaac. As I opened this review with, the film was the brothers’ most perfect film. It was undoubtably complete, and had the perfect exposure of each character and each side plot. Through brief interactions with his friends and colleagues, and uneventful, yet dramatic peaks and valleys; we came to know who Llewyn Davis was, what made him relatable, what he had been through and where he dreamed of getting to. Watching this film is really just experiencing what it means to be human. The film has no flaws. Inside Llewyn Davis is an example of filmmaking at its very best.