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Laura Blum

Laura is a festival correspondent covering films and the festival circuit for She also publishes on Thalo



The Coen Brothers Get "Inside Llewyn Davis"


It's 1961, and folk singer Llewyn Davis is down and out in Greenwich Village. Performing at the Gaslight Café and crashing on friends' sofas, he's feeling what it is to be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a...

Llewyn -- who looms just before that other musician with the Welsh moniker arrives on the scene -- endures an odyssey of reckonings that links Inside Llewyn Davis to O Brother, Where Art Thou? in the Coen Brothers' Homeric canon. Only this Odysseus makes no progress in his wanderings.

Our hapless hero has been trying to give it a go as a solo artist. The album he produced with his former performing partner, If I Had Wings, failed to take wing. Now he has come out with his own LP titled Inside Llewyn Davis. Between the passé sound and the shyster manager, sales aren't what they should be. Llewyn has even bungled his way into caring for a cat (named Ulysses), and he may have gotten a fling (Carey Mulligan) pregnant due to a flawed Trojan. Offhand it's hard to think of another protagonist so stuck between a rock and a hard place, even by Coen standards.


Should the failed artist pack it in and go back to the merchant marine? How much longer can he indulge his dream at the expense of his spirits, coffers and relationships?

And yet. He is played by singer-actor Oscar Isaac, who brings a scruffy vulnerability to his benighted character. Just hear him warble his wistful lyrics and thrum his soulful guitar, and the film's tragicomic notes hit a visceral chord.

Llewyn has a "tortured relationship to success," as Ethan Coen put it at the press screening for the New York Film Festival, where the picture had its North American premiere. It's hard not to sympathize with the character's essential failure: "not wanting to sell out, but wanting to perform and reach people.”

"He feels most true to himself singing old songs," Isaac chimed in at the screening. It's Llewyn's bum luck that the culture is shifting under his feet at this epochal moment. Not that he doesn't deserve the Stygian sorrows that the Coens have plotted for him; the film opens and closes with him getting beaten up by the downhome country husband of the downhome country folk singer he has just taunted onstage. Llewyn may have what Joel Coen described as a "an obsession with authenticity," but as the lead character of a Coen Brothers film he's also beset by ironies.

As we peel back the lamina and start to get inside Llewyn Davis, the film reveals its main worry: what becomes of a character who knows what he's doing isn't working but who is doomed to repeat his missteps? That the Coens have scripted a protagonist without a transcendant arc bucks Hollywood convention in the same spirit as 60s singer-songwriters like Dave Von Ronk -- who inspired Llewyn's world -- rebelled against the conformity of the era.

The rootsy tunes that sink Llewyn buoy the film. Whatever our taste in standards like “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and “The Death of Queen Jane," they grant a respite from squirming as the Fates frown with relish on Llewyn. Now, should executive music producer T Bone Burnett have curated a hit album and a Grammy, as he did with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Llewyn may just get somewhere after all.


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