A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
Year 2, Film #38
THE REVIEW: It’s not often that I leave a theater with no clue as to what I just watched. Usually even if I don’t understand what just happened, I still have a good idea as to why that is. Maybe a character wasn’t fully developed, or I missed some plot point that’s important to the story. But coming out of Inside Llewyn Davis I was just plain puzzled. Partly because of the twist at the end and partly because, as Joel Coen said, “The film doesn’t really have a plot.” The not having a plot isn’t problematic, but it does feed into the confusion I was left with.
Knowing that there wasn’t supposed to be a plot actually makes a lot of sense. Inside Llewyn Davis is sort of a mix between a character study and a day-in-the-life piece. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a poor folk musician who spends his time in clubs and couch surfing throughout New York City. And that’s pretty much it. There’s several things that happen during the film such as Jean Berkey’s (Carey Mulligan) pregnancy, Llewyn’s trip to Chicago to inquire about his album, and participating in a recording session with Jean’s husband Jim (Justin Timberlake). But none of these really build on each other; they’re just presented and then left as you move onto the next scene.
It’s a promising idea but one which I think could have been executed better. I liked just going along for the ride which Llewyn was taking, not knowing where he’d end up, watching the same things happen to him again and again. But I wanted to care more, for Llewyn, for the other characters, and more importantly for the music. There was a disconnect for me between what I was seeing and what I was feeling. I saw the pain and struggling Llewyn had to put up with, and it was well established from a story perspective — I never thought, “Why would he do this now?” — but I didn’t care, mostly because I felt like it wasn’t really. That at any moment, things would turn around for him and everything would be alright. Granted, that’s probably the intention of the Coen brothers here, but it didn’t feel right. In No Country For Old Men I could feel the determination and drive in Josh Brolin’s character through the acting, the visuals, and the sound. All that was lacking here and made it less impactful than it could have been.
What I’m most puzzled about is the ending. There was a bit of a delayed reaction here as I slowly realized what I was watching. Suffice it to say that while I felt something else was off throughout the whole movie, I shoved those suspicions aside until the twist at the end when it revealed that my suspicions were indeed correct. This bit of storytelling was beautifully crafted and extremely well executed by the Coens. As the last scene played, you could hear small gasps coming from around the theater and the epiphany of what was happening dawned on everyone. In many ways it was unexpected and it will force you, as I’m doing now while concurrently writing this review, think about the entire film and what exactly happened.
All this being said, I’m left to wonder, “Why?” What was the purpose of the twist at the end? Did the story really have to be told this way? What benefit is there? I don’t have any answers to these questions and this goes back to my puzzlement that I was trying to describe in the beginning. It’s OK to be left with questions, and if it gets you constantly thinking about the film, that’s a good thing. But at the same time I can’t help but wonder if this actually adds anything to the film. My initial thought: it doesn’t. I still find myself disconnected from Llewyn Davis and the life he lives, and as a result, I find myself wanting more from this film.
But who knows? This could change over time and after a few repeat viewings now knowing what happens, I could glean a little more insight into what it all means and end up really enjoying this movie. For now though, Inside Llewyn Davis will remain an interesting film with a lot of promise. If you’re a fan of the Coen brothers, I’d recommend giving this one a shot. It isn’t their best (the aforementioned No Country For Old Men easily retains that title) but it is a decent entry into their oeuvre.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens in limited release on December 6, 2013. It expands into wide release two weeks later on December 20.
THE RATING: 3 out of 5