Review | Inside Llewyn Davis

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Synopsis

A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.

Review

There is a book on screenwriting out there called Save the Cat (Blake Snyder), the central premise being that in order to make your audience connect with your protagonist you must first show him “Saving the Cat” (hence the name) or helping a similarly helpless animal or person. Strangely enough, at no point in his book did Blake Snyder ever assert that you should have your protagonist leave the cat stranded on a highway, trapped in a car with a chronically ill man.

Inside Llewyn Davis never shies away from how unlikeable its main character is. Llewyn Davis is self-centered, petty, and constantly takes advantage of the kindness of others. By all regards his actions should render Inside Llewyn Davis unwatchable, after all no-one wants to watch a film about someone they hate. So the question is, why is his journey so engaging?

There is one simple answer. The Coen brothers.

In all honesty, “Saving the Cat” is a cheat, the easy way to manipulate your audience. There is no shame in using it, hundreds of great films have done so in the past, and the alternative is extremely hard to pull off in the space of a two hour movie. It just so happens that the Coen brothers have the required talent.

The alternative to “Saving the Cat” is to create a character so life-like that, to the audience, it would feel like they are watching a real person. Llewyn Davis is such a character. There are countless moments in the running of the film that we get the smallest glimpse of Llewyn’s past, giving  us great insight into how he has become the man he has. As such his flaws become understandable, even endearing. We get an incredibly close connection to the character, and even the smallest bumps in his journey can have an intense emotional effect.

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For all of the great writing, Llewyn Davis wouldn’t be such a great character if he wasn’t brought to life by an equally great performance. Luckily the Coen’s once again have proved that they know how to cast their films. Oscar Isaac is incredible as Llewyn Davis. Davis is generally a pretty stoic character, but Isaac manages to impart the most subtle of touches to give him life. I’ll admit there were times, watching him, where I completely forgot I was in the theatre. One particular moment (when it is suggested that he rejoins with his old partner) that I had to stifle a gasp, it was only then that I realised that I was in the theatre and probably shouldn’t try and join in with the dialogue.

Isaac is joined by a rather impressive supporting cast. Justin Timberlake is starting to prove that he can more than hold his own in a dramatic role, and that he (or his agent) has a good eye for projects. John Goodman’s, by now obligatory appearance is as always welcome and peps up what is the films slowest (but not unentertaining) sequence. In the same sequence Garrett Hedlund shows how good he is at exuding intensity without actually having to done anything. And finally Carey Mulligan. At this point it’s getting rather tiresome to describe how consistently superb she is in everything she does.

In the end the success of Inside Llewyn Davis can be boiled down to the above, everything else is a bonus.

There are plenty of bonuses here.

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Set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 60’s there was always going to be some controversy surrounding how the era is here represented. Ultimately any film that chronicles events in living memory is going to receive flak from those that remember it differently. It is inevitable, just look at the controversy that surrounded Captain Phillips’ release. All that matters is that it gets close to the truth and is believable. Here that is certainly the case. The Greenwich Village presented here feels like a living breathing (very brown) environment, populated by a variety of characters who are in pursuit of their own goals. No one is there just to develop Llewyn’s story.

It would be remiss of me to not talk on the music in the film. To be clear, I would not describe myself as a fan of folk music. Aside from a few Bob Dylan albums I have not listened to much of it, neither have I had much desire to. On the whole I enjoyed all of the music in Inside Llewyn Davis. I understand that the majority of the songs here were covers or folk classics, and I am sure there are purists out there who are unhappy with what has been done to them. But, coming from an outsider, I found that they only enhanced my appreciation of the film.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a towering achievement on every level. The fact that the Oscars omitted it almost completely from its nominations astounds me, and adds yet another stain to its already tarnished reputation. Inside Llewyn Davis will  most likely eventually slide into obscurity relative to how the rest of the Coen’s back catalogue will be remembered. It is a shame because this is probably the Coen’s best work to date, it’s exciting to think that there are probably even better things in their future. Lets Hope.

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7 comments

  1. The Celtic Predator

    I just got back from watching this. I don’t think I loved it nearly as much as you did, mainly because I thought it was far too slow at times and the story lost some steam by the end, but I certainly agree with your point how the CB’s and Isaac did a great job at making such an unlikable person so likable, or at the very least relatable.

  2. The Celtic Predator

    http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/12/whats-really-going-on-with-the-cat-in-em-inside-llewyn-davis-em-a-theory/282583/ Also thought you might like this. Some theories on the symbolic function of the cat:

    “This theory that the cat is an extension of Llewyn also helps put the ending of the movie in context. When Llewyn leaves the Gorfeins’ for the “second” time in the final scenes of the film, he keeps the cat inside. This comes after he’s finally learned its name: Ulysses. By doing so, I think the uncontrollable, unpredictable Llewyn also comes to terms with a part of himself. He has been awoken from the dream that he’s an undiscovered genius, and from the erroneous notion that talent exists in a vacuum—that any of his poor decisions and arrogant assholery wouldn’t somehow limit his success.”

    • vultural

      Thanks man. Yeah, I definitely thought there was something symbolic about the cat. I couldn’t put my finger on it while I was watching, but this certainly helps. I guess further viewing will only reveal more.

      I suppose I see where you are coming from with your criticisms, I’ve seen that many people have the same concerns as you. It had a far from conventional story structure, maybe even a lack of direction? Either way I was riveted throughout.

  3. CinemaClown

    This was going to be my next review but now I’m wondering whether to write or simply link that post to this one because you’ve explained it wonderfully. Excellent review.

  4. Pingback: Inside Llewyn Davis Serves Up Harsh Truths About Artistic Failure | MOON IN GEMINI
  5. jonathanmoya

    The Coens probably do the best job of any current directors in creating external worlds that reflect their characters inner state. When they are on, as in here, their movies are always interesting to watching for the observant moviegoer. Great review.

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