INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS starts on a dour depressed note and stays there for the next two hours or so. There are no highs or mediums. It’s all low, all the time. The dreariness of the protagonist’s loser life remains unvaryingly and unremittingly bleak.
The movie’s based loosely on the life of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, who, like Llewyn,, also cut an album called “Inside Dave Van Ronk”, but whose career went nowhere after a young, newcomer to the folk scene, Bob Dylan, stole his one hit song and his one chance to fame and glory. Llewyn has no such excuse. The movie covers the last few weeks of his life as a – failed – singer, before he chucks it all in to return to the merchant navy… to merely exist, as he sees it, instead of living.
Llewyn is a man afraid of the past and scared of the future. For him, the past is a singing partner who killed himself (something you’d want to do after seeing this film) and a two-year old child he never even knew he had; the future, where he refuses to sacrifice the potential of royalties for the immediacy of a session fee, looks mightily like his catatonic father. As a result, he lives in a sort of permanent present, drifting from sofa to floor, barely managing to make ends meet. In this life of living only for the now, nothing can ever change – for the better or for the worse – unless he can escape from the fundamental cause of his troubles: himself.
He’s not a bad singer, and indeed, much of the music, written by Oscar-winner T. Bone Burnett and Todd Kasow (“No Country for Old Men”, “August: Osage County”, “The Fifth Estate”), is pretty good. Llewin’s problem is that he’s a prick: a self-absorbed, artist-anguished, selfish asshole. His personality is repellent. Far from getting inside Llewin Davis, his prickliness keeps everyone out.
His one act of selflessness, and a suggestion that there may, someday, be hope for him, is his knee-jerk reaction to look after a cat that’s been inadvertently shut out of a friend’s apartment, just as Llewyn is shut out from friendship. But really, he’s doomed. This is no story where the hero finally sees the light, or where diligence pays off, or where integrity to art is finally rewarded, even posthumously. Rather it’s the story of a man who, even when he’s down, gets (literally) kicked down further. As Jean, his sister, tells him (accurately) “Everything you touch turns to shit, you’re like King Midas’ idiot brother”. It’s the story of a life which goes from worse to worser.
Filmed in a kind of washed out grey (by Oscar nominated Bruno Delbonel), no light is ever allowed to enter into this grim story of a grim life.
The director/writer team of Ethan and Joel Coen have picked up a fair share of awards and nominations for “Inside Llewin Davis” and it’s been solidly praised across the board. The cast is outstanding, with bit-player Oscar Isaac in the lead, jousting with ex-lover Jean (a venomous Cary Mulligan – all sweetness on stage and foul-mouthed sourness off). John Goodman as a record producer, Ronald Turner is a heroin shooting wreck of a man: a vast physical embodiment of failure. The art direction is beautifully honed, with carefully constructed scenes that reek of the early days of Queens and Greenwich Village. “Sex in the City” art director Deborah Jensen helps you smell the curling cigarette smoke in the grey fog of lonely performance venues and The Gaslight Café. And the music, as we’ve noted, is marvelous.
But, despite it all, despite this carefully observed life of this unremittingly unpleasant man, there’s nothing here that’s worth two hours of a viewer’s life. The movie offers no new or interesting insights into any of the threads the story follows: self-belief v selfishness; integrity v commercialism; how we try to fit in to the world around us. It’s as dreary as its hero, as dour as his life.