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Cinema Signal: It's a challenge to appreciate, but for serious cineastes, it's a go! MOBILE version |
. "Inside Llewyn Davis"

In what might be one of the stranger movies made by important American filmmakers, we're presented with a protagonist whom writer-directors Ethan and Joel Coen virtually defy us to feel compassion or sympathy for. But the stranger part is that this unusual approach isn't a reason to bypass this take on a singer's life during the folk music craze of the 1960's.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, "Sucker Punch") is a substantial talent singing his way around Greenwich Village, NY, in 1961. The film opens in a prologue that shows him on stage at the Gaslight Cafe, singing the pity out of Dave Van Ronk's spiteful challenge to life and authority, "Hang me, Oh Hang Me,"

Hang Me,Oh Hang me, and I'll be dead and gone.
Hang Me, Oh Hang me...,I'll be dead and gone..
wouldn't mind the hangin.. but the layin in the grave so long
poor boy... i been all around this world.

which accomplishes three things right off: Oscar Isaac is a more than able singer of folk ballads and, as the song and the singing suggests, his Llewyn Davis is a man with promise and an attitude that befits the material -- thirdly, that the writer-directors are allowing songs to be played in this movie in their entirety. An act of true folkies.

When a trio replaces Llewyn on stage, the owner of the cafe informs him that he has a visitor, a man in a black suit, waiting for him out in the alley. Seeing the stranger doesn't explain his appearance nor any understanding of why he would punch Llewelyn to the ground and kick him in the ribs. Whereof such wrath?

The story now steps back in time to the events that lead to this encounter, when the reason behind the stranger's attack becomes clear. By which time we, ourselves, are ready to punch our hero out, too, for similar reasons.

Llwewlyn is unattached. No girlfriend, no apartment, few friends. Those he does have are on his rotating list for couch space for a couple of nights' sleep here, a few there. And, at this time, he's been staying with two of the members of that trio, Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake, "The Social Network") and Carey Mulligan, "The Great Gatsby").

When sexy Jean is alone with Llewyn she's pretty much always in a rage against him. What's bothering her is that she's pregnant and can't say who the father is, Jim or Llewyn. For a good part of the first act she's a total shrew, blaming him, cursing him, berating him, accusing him.

What's unstated, besides the fact that their fling was consensual, is that it's the 1960s. If it's nothing else, it's a time when traditional mores have been rewritten and everyone is a flower child. Sleeping around is the norm. We can give Llewyn some credit for taking the barrage of verbal abuse from her with manly reserve and for his willingness to arrange (and pay for) an abortion, which finally quiets her down. Problem solved.

The itinerant singer earns some credit, too, for doing everything in his power to retrieve a house cat which he allowed to escape his friend's apartment and is now running free on the streets of Manhattan. Besides illustrating Llewyn's sense of responsibility (and fear of losing a couch?), the cat sub-plot is a remarkable piece of animal control by professional handlers.

But don't go thinking this guy is someone you want to spend a lot of time with. An hour and 45 minutes will be plenty.

To explain his mental state, we eventually learn the source of his bipolarity, that he recently lost his singing partner, with whom he made an album, in a lethal accident. The pain and grief that followed has completely unmoored him from the world he set out to conquer. He is dealing with it through surly cynicism, railing at those he's most dependent on, his agent, his shelterers, his sister. His language has no restraints even in front of his young nephew. But the target of all this destruction is himself. He's a man adrift, disconnected from society and mere civility.

He gets to audition for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), the (fictional) owner of the Gate of Horn nightclub in Chicago, one of the most important folk venues of the time. But he ensures his failure by selecting as an audition piece, "The Death of Queen Jane" from the Child collection of English and Scottish ballads -- one of the purest songs of the genre and the goriest. One couldn't imagine a worse choice for an audition piece. At its conclusion, Grossman utters as his goodbye line, "I don't see any money here," and Llewyn is a goner.

Which exposes something about the two guys who wrote the character. We see, in this Coen film, other characters who are strange and inexplicable in peculiarly mysterious ways. To get to Chicago he thumbs a ride. The man at the wheel (Garrett Hedlund, "On the Road") is, for a long piece of road, as laconic as a stone. But the man in back makes this driver seem like Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Handsomely attired Roland Turner (John Goodman) is asleep; then he's awake. Then, he starts growling about everything under the sun. He holds forth with dialogue only a Venusian would understand, poking Llewelyn with one of his two canes anytime he feels like it. This injection of a rotund, surreal Fellini-Bergman-Wellesian character appears to be a sample of human dysfunction to make the singer's disassociative state look like normality.

Extended screen time makes the trip horribly claustrophobic. So much so that I couldn't wait to get out of this car! For me, it was going to be a change of scene or the lobby.

As a long-time folkie myself, I've always appreciated the Coens for having paid tribute to folk music. In "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" they focused on American rural music of the 1930s in a more comical, folksy and accessible style. The common chord, however, is the quality of the music in both films. Bringing in T-Bone Burnett to produce the soundtrack pays off in how his savvy choices help define the thought processes of an artist in a struggle of self-identity.

At the core, the Coens are bringing later generations to the sad story of song artists who plodded the coffeehouse trails and venues of a time that brought out Van Ronk, the Carter Family, Woodie Guthrie, Leadbelly, Simon & Garfunkle, Neil Young, Doc Watson, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Creedence Clearwater and Bob Dylan, to name just a tiny fraction of the treasures the decade spawned.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" makes another point about balladeers striving for that next gig, if not recognition and success. In the musical world, even a good singer who doesn't write his or her own songs is at a significant disadvantage. It might have been Llewyn's biggest problem, even with the who-am-I crisis he was going through.

In terms of casting a film that required a person of the right age who is both an actor and a full-fledged musician, Isaac is a find. In an interview covering that aspect of the production, the Coens said that during auditions, when Isaac showed up the search was over.

Mulligan as the babe every male wants time with is saddled with enough strident dialogue at shreak volume to bring the admiration we may have for her to a screeching halt. Such are the risks of the actor's job.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" lies an uncompromising portrayal of an unknown singer and a few of his contemporaries who inhabited what some consider hallowed ground of folk music in the 20th century (count me in on that). The gig seekers, the managers taking advantage of the new cultural phenomenon, the bistro owners, A dark ode to new fans and singers of one of the oldest musical forms on the planet (and its modern variants). Looking inside Llewyn Davis isn't at all flowery or fulfilling, as any other filmmaker might have portrayed what's seen there. Typical Hollywood fare, it isn't. Ambivalence is the meat and grist of a character study that takes us on a slide to a darkened side of reality. If you can take that, and could appreciate a Coen challenge to remain in your seat no matter what, you should see this.

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Oscar Isaac is Llewyn Davis
Balladeer with a chip.

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