Inside Llewyn Davis review: A beautiful portrait of a struggler

Deepanjana Pal

Jan 10, 2014 11:35:49 IST

Inside Llewyn Davis begins with beautiful music. It's 1961, we're inside the suitably smoky Gaslight Cafe in Brooklyn and there's a scruffy man with a guitar in his arms. He says he's going to finish this little concert with a favourite: "It's never new and it never gets old. It's a folk song." Then he starts singing Hang Me, O Hang Me, and the song is haunting a melody.

How you'll react to Ethan and Joel Coen's new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, depends to a large extent on your opinion of American folk music. If you think it's basically a genre characterised by raspy, reedy voices whining away about how unfair life is, then you'll probably find yourself cheering for every person and event that knocks the protagonist Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) down. A lot of people do that to Llewyn, and with steady regularity.

 Inside Llewyn Davis review: A beautiful portrait of a struggler

A still from Inside Llweyn Davis.

This is not because life is harsh and no one appreciates his genius. On the contrary, Llewyn is able to survive because he has a handful of friends who are admiring of his talent. They give him places to stay and food to eat not only because they're charitable, but also because they love his music. Llewyn's way of saying thanks? While sleeping on his friend Jim's (Justin Timberlake) couch, Llewyn also sleeps with Jim's wife Jean (Carey Mulligan). He throws a furious tantrum when his kindly middle-aged hostess, Lillian Gorfein, starts singing along with him at a dinner party. Without their invitation, he'd have gone hungry. Without their kindness, he'd be without a place to sleep. But gratitude isn't in Llewyn's system. Arrogance is, as is music.

Inside Llewyn Davis lets you watch a few days in Llewyn's life that seem to be rather eventful. From discovering he might be a father to finding the money for Jean's abortion, making a road trip to Chicago with the hope of getting a gig that would jumpstart his career, almost joining the army and losing a cat, a lot happens in Llewyn's life in this time.

(The cat, incidentally, enjoys the kind of screen time that most actors would kill for in a Cohen brothers' film.)

And yet, as Inside Llewyn Davis unfolds, you realise that this man's life follows a pattern: he gets up in the morning, goes out into the world, flaunts his talent and his pride, gets knocked down, dusts himself off, gets a night's sleep and begins the process all over again. It's the struggling artist's life and despite the wicked, dark humour in the film, Inside Llewyn Davis is heartbreaking. It's also incredibly beautiful, enriched as the poignant story is by a fabulous soundtrack, superb cinematography and a virtuoso performance by Oscar Isaac who has also sung all of Llewyn's songs.

By the end of the film, Llewyn hasn't lost hope even though he's exhausted and feeling the blows a little more than he did at the start. Considering how cruel and callous Llewyn is to so many people around him, you'd expect that it would feel like he's getting his just desserts when luck doesn't favour him. But even as the Coen brothers lay bare Llewyn's many flaws, they're constantly underscoring how intensely Llewyn loves the music he creates. Nothing else matters in his life and even if it would be sensible to compromise just a little now and then, Llewyn won't. His music is the one good, pure thing in him and his life, and he will guard it ferociously. Others don't. Jim, for instance, is happy to sing the hilarious Please Mr. Kennedy because it pays well. He can ignore how rubbish the song is. But Llewyn can't. He is one of the people that Arthur O'Shaughnessy wrote about in "Ode":

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.

The only difference is that once Bob Dylan takes the stage at Gaslight Cafe, you know that, rather than becoming a mover and shaker, there's more obscurity and rejection in store for Llewyn.

There were many real life versions of the obscure folk singer who didn't find the limelight the way Dylan did. One is Dave Van Ronk, whose autobiography was one of the inspirations for Inside Llewyn Davis. Another is Sixto Rodriguez, who is the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugarman. Somehow, the Coen brothers manage to make the fictional Llewyn Davis, with all the surreal elements in his life, feel more painfully real. Contained In Llewyn's failure is a portrait of the artist as an insufferably arrogant creature whom convention and luck try to humble but can't. Does the fact that his songs are such exquisite, melancholic gems make up for everything that Llewyn goes through and for the fact that he's among those who are doomed to be forgotten? That's the question that every unknown, struggling artist faces and to quote Llewyn, it's a question that's "never new and it never gets old."

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Updated Date: Jan 10, 2014 12:33:37 IST