Belated, Short Film Review: Getting Under ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

by Kolby Solinsky

Editor, White Cover Magazine

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You’ll have to watch it twice. Because Inside Llewyn Davis is, at first viewing, boring. But the second time, it’s subtle. Subtle is an artistically conscious way of saying boring, but it’s a compliment – in the way someone who’s short can be the biggest person in the room, like Napoleon, something boring can actually be riveting, captivating, and definitely oddly exciting.

The film starts out slow, it continues slow, and it ends with an AH HA. The acting is terrific – everyone, from lead Oscar Isaac to Carey Mulligan, to supporters Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, John Goodman, and Adam Driver are perfect for their parts – and the writing-slash-directing is, as always with the Coens, tuned for the pitch.

You sort of think you’re walking into a movie defined by its soundtrack and its black-and-white-in-colour lighting and style, but you’re actually walking into a universe you’ve seen but never seen. The entire Greenwich Village setting of the Sixties has always been like that, I assume even to the ones who were there. Because some made it out and made it big – like Bob Dylan – and the rest were just stoned and combing over the aging when the party finished.

In a way, Greenwich Village didn’t start until last call. But everyone in the bar just kept riding it out, keeping their eyes open so they didn’t have to wake up.

Well, I don’t know that, of course. You can only guess, and Inside Llewyn Davis makes it a little easier to. It’s the other side of Mad Men, taking the camera 40 blocks south of Madison Avenue’s skyscrapers to the coffeehouses and sit-ins.

Not everyone knows they’re in a golden age when they’re in a golden age – for Llewyn, he’s constantly worrying (legitimately) about money, saving cats, trying to make it in a saturated folk-singing market, borrowing to pay for abortions, and he’s trying his hardest to just not die, basically every day. Does he even know he’s playing the same cafes as Dylan or Joan Rivers or Woody Allen? Does he know how we’ll all look at his era only decades after? Of course not. The present is dull; it only becomes the past when it’s finished. Like Elvis, it gets better when it’s dead.

In a weird way, you can draw a link between that folk-singing Sixties scene and the social media explosion, post-2010. It seems everyone now is an expert on anything involving a Share button, and it’s the go-to name-drop when you’re interviewing, networking, or just shaking hands and introducing yourself. You may as well say your handle, then your first name. And before you get to your last name, don’t forget to let us know what your company’s called and the weird way you spell it – it’s not Scribed, it’s Scribd. It’s not Watch It, it’s Wochit. Clever.

Llewyn drops a beautiful cut-down early on in the film – in a scene that’s actually a flashback – when he finishes his song and says, “If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

There are so many things you could ad-lib in there at the end, from in between 1961 and now. And the funny thing is, folk never died – it’s just that the 95% of people who had no chance to make it in Greenwich Village accepted their failure and moved on, so the quantity evaporated while the quality stayed the same.

But like skateboarding and gelling your hair, somebody will always be into it, even when the majority move on.

And that line – about the never new and the never gets old – really tells you everything you have to know about Llewyn. He’s a conscious, terrifyingly smart fly on the wall. He’s tremendous at identifying what’s wrong with the world and with everyone he knows – suburban types call that being cynical but there’s often a real skill required to being an asshole all the time – but even he can’t save himself from stepping into the same quicksand.

He’s just another needle in a tangled haystack of acoustic twins – everyone sounds the same, nobody’s brave enough to plug in and go electric again.

(And about him being a fly on the wall, that’s almost essential for any narrator – think Nick Carraway in Gatsby or Sorkin (ha ha) in The Newsroom. It’s basically obvious that Llewyn becomes a failure as a musician, not just because we never see him turn into anything but because after we last see him play we then see an obscured view of Bob Dylan playing an identically themed (but superior) folk song. We see Llewyn glance back at Dylan quickly with a look of deflated jealousy. Like whatever he suddenly felt so confident about was done away with one strum of Dylan’s guitar, like it was clear he was only five minutes too late to make his move before Dylan came along and snapped up the sound before Llewyn could plant his flag and stake his claim to the genre.)

There have only been a few eras in history that are so popular, so dreamy and when the words art and culture meant the same thing. Greenwich in the Sixties was one. Paris in the Twenties was another. L.A. had a pretty cool noir thing going in the Forties and Fifties. You’ve seen them done over and over in movies and TV shows and those decades have something in common – they were all followed by dark ages. They were a slow drip towards nothing, unless you got out early and made your name in that razor-thing slice of time you could. Vegas stole Sammy Davis Jr. from the Sunset Strip. The Depression and the Nazis levelled and raped Paris and turned the enlightenment into an authoritarian fog. And Greenwich gave way to a lot of people taking heroin too seriously and the ugly mad house that was Central Park from the Seventies till Giuliani.

Inside Llewyn Davis is, a second time around, perfectly flawed and very charming. Like nearly every Coen film, it demands your attention and keeps some things hidden away, just in case you missed them the first time.

And like Greenwich itself, it’ll be relevant even when it’s history.