Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

by Afra Nariman

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Adam Driver, Justin Timberlake


“I’m tired… I thought I just needed a night’s sleep but it’s more than that.”

Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the films which cut the deepest for me. With every rewatch, I’m reminded just how much truth lies within this film; and it never loses its punch. 

The character of Llewyn Davis is distinctive within the context of the Coen Brothers filmography. The Coen Brothers have created some of the most interesting characters in contemporary cinema. Most of their films feature protagonists that are characterized as people who are trying to move up in life, or to improve their status, only to have the world push back and reject their ambition. Notably, ‘The Dude’ in The Big Lebowski is a character who has essentially accepted his standing in life and does his best to avoid the traps of ambition set by others. He simply abides. Similarly Fargo’s Marge Gunderson and No Country for Old Men’s Ed Tom Bell find peace in their present circumstances; though events set in motion by the ambition of others threaten to break their peace, and they momentarily do. While characters around them act on their ambitions and eventually see their lives forever changed for the worse, or come to an end; Marge and Ed Tom live on in relative peace after the Coen Brothers are through telling their story. 

Llewyn Davis is of the first group, a character determined to “make it big,” or at the very least bigger than he currently is. What’s unique about this character though, played masterfully by Oscar Isaac, is that Llewyn Davis is actually really good at what he does. Most of the Coen Brothers’ characters who hope to raise their standing in life are bad at what they do, and they fail because of their own mistakes, their lack of abilities, and common sense. For the kidnappers in Fargo, their crimes are executed poorly; for Barton Fink, his ignorance stands in the way of writing stories about and for the “common man;” for the fitness training duo in Burn After Reading, their skills in blackmail and espionage leave a lot to be desired; etc. This is not necessarily the case with Llewyn Davis (or at least his mistakes are of a different kind, as for him the mistakes do not lie in his ability regarding his area of pursuit — music). 

Here, the Coens paint a picture even more grounded in reality than is typical in their work, which makes it all the more devastating. Llewyn is an incredible musician who just doesn’t ‘make it’ in a time that only few did, and all the others didn’t. He’s one of those who didn’t become Bob Dylan.  

You’re left asking what’s next for Llewyn. Of course the looped, cyclical ending suggests that he’ll continue to go through the same motions, the same struggles, and only improve marginally as time goes on — but then again, you’d ask how long he would be willing to go on like this. The film is structured in such a way that the period shown is just a week in his life, but it can be interpreted as being representative of much longer. The Coens are communicating the repetitive nature of life; not just for Llewyn but for all of us. Are we all destined to continue to go through the motions, never fulfilling the ambitions we have for our lives? Excluding the Bob Dylan’s of the world, the Coen Brothers would say that we are. 

At one point, Llewyn’s friend Jean (played by Carey Mulligan) accuses Llewyn of not wanting to be successful, of not trying. Llewyn goes on to make the trek to Chicago to perform in front of a reputable music manager, Bud Grossman, and for the first time we really see Llewyn give his full effort into a performance. He doesn’t simply go through the motions, which being the great artist he is, had always been enough to garner an applause at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village; but here, he looks straight at Grossman, his naked desperation out on the table, and performs with every fiber of his being. When he’s finished, Grossman looks straight at Llewyn and says, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” This scene encapsulates the experience of life that the Coens set out to establish with this film, as it shows just how difficult this journey can be in a world that isn’t kind, and how any single moment can suck every ounce of hope and life out of you. After this rejection, Llewyn momentarily gives up on music and attempts to ship out with the marines, before ending up back, “playing the Gaslight for the 400th time… for the fucking basket,” essentially starting the cycle all over again. 

Regarding the consequences of Llewyn’s actions (Coen Brother characters must always reap what they sow, as do those around them); here they are more nuanced in relation to the typical Coen Brothers film. Here, nobody dies due to the mistakes of the protagonist. The mistakes here aren’t situational, as much as they are behavioral. Llewyn’s feelings of failure and his deep rooted desire to find a way to successfully “live” rather than simply “exist” cause him to hurt those around him in an emotional sense. In this context, the Coens’ patented dark comedy arises not only through situation here, but in the sadness behind some of the darkly hurtful things Llewyn says to and about the people he surrounds himself with.

The Coen Brothers always get incredible performances out of their actors, and that’s just the case here. Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Llewyn Davis is one that I consider to be in the conversation for one of the best performances of the century. Other notables are John Goodman and Carey Mulligan. Goodman gives another memorable Coen-directed performance as an over-the-hill Jazz musician with much to say regarding his perspective of life. Mulligan gives one of the most understated and underrated performances in recent memory. Her portrayal of Jean is perfect. The back and forth between Isaac and Mulligan reveal a lot about Llewyn’s off-screen story, allowing the film to establish a deeper understanding of its characters and a therefore larger worldview. 

Supported by both the use of a cyclical ending, and by a poem recited by Goodman’s character’s valet, Johnny Five, Inside Llewyn Davis asserts the notion that our lives consist of constantly dreaming of doing more, yet always returning to the same place — like the cat, Ulysses finally does — to pick up the pieces and try again. The Coens illustrate that this cycle is endless for as long as you keep living. Some will continue in this cycle to no avail as Llewyn does, while others — the few — will find their way out and their ambitions will be met with success, as Bob Dylan, fictionally presented as Llewyn’s follow up performance in the final scene, did.


Rating: 5 out of 5.

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