Inside Llewyn Davis ★★★★½

This may just be my longest review yet. Buckle up.

Note: There are possibly some minor give-aways here, albeit in thematic analysis rather than in plot points, although I do my best to never ruin any film I review. Either way, I won’t be flagging this as having actual spoilers. If that's something you care about, you might want to reserve reading this until after you've seen the film.

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Like many of the Coen brothers’ films before it, Inside Llewyn Davis is a Tragedy in the most archetypal sense. Its titular protagonist faces misfortune after misfortune, and while the fault in a majority of cases is his own, there’s a very real sense that he - just like his music - is a temporal anomaly in the universe, out of place and adrift in a world that isn’t ready for him, or at least can’t provide him a context. His problems may come from a fate or destiny that seeks to beat him down, but it’s impossible not to reconcile this any other way than with the understanding that Llewyn has manifested his magnificently terrible luck through his own devices.

Joel and Ethan Coen fill this world with an assortment of characters - some vibrant, others incredibly dark, more still barely present - and Llewyn’s interaction with each and every one of them feels like a genuine struggle. As the film progresses we begin to see life chip away at Llewyn and we unearth the roots of his melancholy. But I won’t say more on that for fear of spoiling, because I truly feel that this is the heart of the film’s emotional well from which all of its sentimental punch can be derived.

The film’s structure is challenging. It doesn’t arc in the traditional sense, and there’s an important manner of how it bookends that is non-linear in a curious way. In lesser hands this might feel slightly convoluted or even ill-conceived, but here it strikes me as emphasizing the cyclicality of Llewyn’s life in which he is ultimately forced to find his place. This is also reinforced by the massive gear-shifting that happens between the first and second acts, as the film transforms from a classic Coen Brothers clusterfuck of snowballing misfortune to a gaping expanse of isolated reflection. It’s here in the second act, as Llewyn attempts both an escape and a new beginning, that we see him forced to realize the control that he’s been missing over his own life.

In the middle of the film we meet few characters, but the ones we do meet affect powerful ramifications for our protagonist. We meet Johnny Five, who’s somehow the closest parallel we see in the film to Llewyn. He’s too cool even for decent conversation, and his connection with beat poetry is the epitome of purity in art that Llewyn recognizes in his own passion for music, albeit distorted to the point of self-implosion. It’s en route to Chicago that Llewyn realizes, through the lenses of his companions, that escaping into the purity of his art will destroy him, but also that the very idea of escape is futile since any art is entirely subjective - a fact that his fellow travellers make painfully obvious to him. When Llewyn finally gets to Chicago to face the inevitability of his situation, we finally begin to see his character come to grips with his music and his life.

And that is as perfect a segue I can make to the film’s cat. I’ve heard some pretty great theories on this cat: like that Llewyn is the cat (as the lady who mishears him on the payphone interprets it), or that the cat represents a “fuck you” to the screenwriting wisdom of Blake Snyder - who’s famous for explaining a story-by-the-numbers template usually involving some seemingly inconsequential act of valour (like saving a cat). And sure, these are both valid interpretations. But for me, the cat’s presence is an analogue to the control Llewyn has (or doesn’t have) over his own life. Without giving too much away, we see how, in the first act, Llewyn’s life is utterly at the mercy of those he relies on. The cat itself isn’t an analogue - the fact that Llewyn is forced to care for the animal and fumbles that responsibility in some ridiculous ways should not be taken as metaphor - but its presence is reflective of the weight of the world on the character and his inability to make decisions that will improve his existence.

When he demonstrates his anger and loses control at the end of the first act, a cat is thrust back into his life with an energy that rivals his own. When he again fumbles a big decision at the end of the second act, the universe lets him know - by way of a cat - that he needs to come to grips with his decision-making. The presence of the cat, in all of these events, are cues to the state of control Llewyn has over the course of his own life.

And, again without giving too much away, in the end it’s the presence of a cat that reinforces the cyclical nature of his situation while at the same time demonstrating that there is balance in a harsh world.

Theories and analysis aside, the film is incredibly well put-together and remarkably restrained. There’s some inspired visual sequences (like the cat on the subway) and some brilliant transitional segues. Bruno Delbonnel’s photography is drably beautiful. The music connects on a transcendent level, and it’s hard not to be drawn into the songs - the same way Llewyn is - whenever he sings. But the music can also be hilarious, gimmicky or sterile exactly when it needs to be, all while never feeling overly lampooned. That’s the genius of T Bone Burnett and the impeccable taste of the Coens.

The performances are fantastic all around. Supporting characters big and small, from relatively straight Jean & Jim to caricatures like Al Cody, Troy Nelson and Roland Turner are wonderfully realized. And you’ll find some brilliant Coen-ified dialogue from any and all of these characters at every turn. But it’s in Oscar Isaac that the heart of the film lies. It’s his experience that is impossible to disengage with despite how morose it seems.

Inside Llewyn Davis chronicles a period of a man’s life when he is forced to come to grips with a world that doesn’t understand his role in it any more than he himself does. In both the constant defeat of reality and the uplifting escape of his music, Isaac effortlessly connects us to this world the Coens have built for him, along with all of the struggle and misfortune they have poured into it.

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