Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

17 Feb

Inside Llewyn Davis is an extremely uncomfortable masterpiece from the Coen brothers.   What we get is a day in the life of Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk musician in Greenwich Village in the early sixties.  His failure has made him hostile, and his stubborn clinging to artistic credulity limits his options.

This movie really points at the flaws in the American Dream.   First, if you have a dream and work hard enough you will eventually succeed.  Nobody works harder than Llewyn, and he goes nowhere.   The people around him who have a chance of success are no more talented, and often have less passion for the work than Llewyn does.   He’s surrounded by ghosts of his future, people who have followed his road–and none of the endings are happy.  We’ve got John Goodman as the Jazz musician who’s addicted to heroin, Justin Timberlake whose bland persona covers up a suburban worldview where he ignores things that will be obvious trouble later, Carrie Mulligan raging at the whole world, Llewyn’s father who is sinking into blankness under dementia, the professor who has a collector’s appreciation of music, but no feeling for it–nobody in this movie gets fulfillment from their art.

That’s the second myth that this movie pokes holes in–if you follow your bliss, the whole world will unfold before you.   In this movie, Llewyn Davis sacrifices everything for his music.  He throws away his childhood things in a box by the curb, he is broke, he has no place to live, he only has his guitar and a desire to sing–and that makes for a very hard life.   The truth is, he cannot feed off his dreams forever–sooner or later something is going to break.    The world doesn’t run by the secret–wanting something bad enough does not make it happen.

Also talent has nothing to do with it.  Every example in this movie of somebody succeeding has nothing to do with how talented they are or not.   One man in the Army who’s slated for success merely picked up folk singing to pass the time.   The hit song that they recorded was  a novelty.  In fact, for all the music happening in this film, nobody really ever talks about music outside of it being a business.   It’s also clear that the people who are in position to make or break these folkies often have little appreciation for the music.  In fact, during Llewyn’s visit to Chicago, he meets up with a man who’s the biggest producer in folk music, and he mostly judges him in terms of being able to connect with an audience, than how good he is.

Then there’s the myth of the exceptional person.    Nearly every movie is about a person who has that special something which marks them for greatness.  We are told since the beginning of our lives that we are special and we can be anything we want.  Can we?  What if we’re perfectly ordinary?  Or what if we’re even pretty talented and that doesn’t matter?   For many, this is a very depressing thought.  We want to feel like we’re completely in control of our destinies, but generally, we’re not.  Puncturing that illusion of control and significance is a big ego bruise, after all we are all stars in our own lives.   Why isn’t that enough?

In the end Bob Dylan shows up on the stage to perform just as Davis is leaving.   It’s hard to know what we’re meant to feel seeing this.   Perhaps it’s a bit of happiness that somebody gets to become an artist in all this, but at the same time, Dylan is the one who will eventually make the whole folk music scene irrelevant in a few years time.    Also while Dylan is a visionary genius, Llewyn is merely a talented musician.

I find this movie to be excellent–a deconstruction of music history while having every shot look like one of those classic folk covers.   My only quibble is that Justin Timberlake is a very muggy actor.   It’s like everything he says or does is a smirky Saturday night live joke.   Not enough to ruin the movie, but still.

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