Second Opinion: Inside Llewyn Davis

The protagonists in just about all of The Coen Bros. movies are, for lack of a better word, cursed. They are usually the hapless playthings of fate, usually wholly baffled, to either a pathetically humorous end (The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona) or a painfully tragic one (Fargo, No Country for Old Men), depending on the mood the Coens are trying to achieve that time around. In both cases, whether tragic or comic, their unlucky heroes are typically trapped within their own outsize personalities, unable to see beyond their own quirky/old-fashioned worldview. I suppose one could describe the Coens’ movies as “whimsically fatalistic.”

It’s been a while, then, since we’ve had a Coen personality so down-to-Earth as Llewyn Davis, the sympathetic bastard at the center of the their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis. An ever-struggling folk singer bumming about various cities during the folk boom of the early, early 1960s – in that passionate and lovely (yet frustratingly Caucasian) musical era that included The Kingston Trio, but did not yet incorporate Bob Dylan – Llewyn Davis plays like a failed Bohemian. He wants to make music, but has hit that familiar and frustrating hamster wheel existence of living gig-to-gig, never sure where he’s going to sleep that night, or if he even wants to keep on struggling. The recent (off-screen) suicide of his old folk partner (and we never do figure out what happened between the two of them) also has Llewyn at a crossroads. Continue, or just let it be?

As a result, Llewyn is bitter, sarcastic, and exhausted. He snipes at people and has arguments with just about everyone, not least of which, his married folk singer ex-lover (Carey Mulligan) who hates him passionately, and who just may be pregnant with his child. What’s more, he’s trapped couch surfing, toting a friend’s cat he accidentally absconded with. Llewyn is trapped in this situation by both poverty and by his own sardonic personality and Devil-may-care attitude. But you can kind of understand his bitterness this time around in the Coen canon. This time, things really are just unfair.

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Had Inside Llewyn Davis remained a sad tale of a bitter sad sack, it could have tipped dangerously toward the insufferably maudlin (or perhaps just the outright tragic), but the filmmakers are not content to let things rest so comfortably dramatic. Over the course of the film, events start to skew from the recognizable to the truly absurd. Llewyn can never shake his bad luck, but his life is not so much a Greek tragedy so much as something Samuel Beckett would have thought up in one of his jauntier moods.

Indeed, about halfway through the film, Llewyn takes a road trip to Chicago (to hock his songs to a record producer), trapping himself in a car with a silent punker driver (Garrett Hedlund) and a bitter fat weirdo (John Goodman). The dynamic between these three men is nothing short of Pazzo, Estragon, and Lucky from “Waiting for Godot.” The driving sequences are the best in the movie.

By the end, you may not be able to logically connect the dramatic threads – the absurdist twists really do come out of nowhere, and gradually build in surreality, eventually reaching the point of repeated scenes and blurred chronology – but through it all, it will feel right.

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It most certainly helps that the music of Inside Llewyn Davis is so earnestly beautiful. Curated by master record producer T-Bone Burnett, the folk songs on display in this film strike just the right balance between being 100% historically authentic, completely and strikingly original, and yet totally dramatically salient. In a swirling world of absurd encounters, Llewyn Davis is only grounded and only vulnerable when he sings his ancient Irish ballads from the very bottom of his impassioned soul. The music is the beating heart of the film, and it’s a delight to hear. Heck, even the goofy novelty single that Justin Timberlake records early in the film sounds like something that would have had some airplay on Dr. Demento at some point.

Pleasantly peculiar, cynically funny, hurtfully playful, and oddly authentic, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the best films of the year.

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.