Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis ★★★★★

Number 19 in the month-long survey of NYC movies is my penniless balladeer bf’s favorite movie of this century—an Easter egg-riddled, fictionalized look into one of his favorite moments in American music history.

It’s in a gauzy, dreamlike early-60s Greenwich Village that the Coen brothers unfold a numbing, elliptical story of floundering folk musician Llewyn Davis (played ineffably by Oscar Isaac in his best role to date). A nimble-fingered itinerant, Llewyn is grieving the death of his musical partner, Mike Timlin, and treading water playing traditional songs on a vintage guitar in basket houses while his contemporaries are commodifying themselves within the mutating folk scene—where acts are getting shinier, more handsome, and perform contemporary songs with all but trace roots in the Early American folk music and spirituals that comprise Llewyn’s repertoire. Llewyn’s identity within the film is inextricably adhered to a phantom notion of authenticity—and through his implacable self-righteousness, his slavish fealty to humble musical honesty, and his insular aversion to navigating the cultural milieu as a burgeoning industry manacles him to an unremittingly repetitive existence. 

Llewyn, in a conversation with his sister in her modest Woodside, Queens home, slanders everyman life outside his Village snow globe when she suggests he rejoin the Merchant Marines to earn an income, incredulously doubting, “and what, just exist?” But Llewyn’s impoverished transient life amounts to little more than existing— relegated to crashing on array of charitable sofas, floating in the foggy, incandescent haze of a New York winter and strumming in coffeehouses to no profitable end (his creaky management little more than lip service and his prospects of breaking into a more mainstream audience bleak as his spirits). When he has nothing else but existence, Llewyn clings to authenticity like a life preserver as frozen souls bob in the icy waters of the scene around him, careerist and therefore spiritually and morally dead—but his torch for the traditional fails to impress at a possibly career-defining audition with a prominent manager and during a would-be tender familial moment with his father, further exhibiting the world’s rejection of Llewyn’s brand of defiant sincerity. 

Many foils are pitted against Llewyn and his trademarked disgruntled purism: his hostile sometimes-lover Jean and to a lesser extent her affable and compliant accompanist and beau Jim, an antiseptic, singing private with mass appeal on leave from Fort Dix, even his well-intentioned but exoticizing UWS academic friends the Gorfeins, but the most rancorous of the bunch is the formidable jazzman Roland Turner—John Goodman in stellar comedic form as an arrogant, heroin-fueled raconteur. The deadpan cultural clash between Llewyn and Roland, confined to a borrowed, chauffeured sedan on a road trip to Chicago, is teeming with aggression and opposing worldviews—remarkably resembling a cinematic adaptation of Richard’s interactions with my imperious father (though to be fair, Richard is an avid disciple of jazz, folk and blues, where my dad is strictly a bluesman). The interlude challenges not only his musical influences and prowess, but his scabbing personal history and potential future success.

But when Llewyn—cynical and deluged by the exploitation of the folk landscape despite his fiercely-held, self-defeating doctrine of ancestral faithfulness—finally meets an embodiment of this sacred authenticity he revers in the form of an auto harp-plucking granny from Arkansas, he publicly heckles and ridicules her, her honesty and earnestness to share her oral culture bitterly interrupted by a jaded shell of a tortured man teetering between virtuoso and minstrel, art and commerce, life and existence.


Scenes from the City that Doesn't Sleep: A Month-Long NYC Movie Marathon

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