Inside Llewyn Davis
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2013
#1, 2013 Skandies

This movie is about a homeless folk singer in Greenwich Village in 1961, and includes performances of several complete songs.  I don't like folk music.  Much of the plot revolves around the main character's attempts to look after a cat.  I love cats.  Therefore my review will be mixed.

Actually, I don't have a ton to say about this one.  I guess my main observation is this.  Inside Llewyn Davis plays around with time; not only does the story turn out to be a kind of temporal loop, but nominal time and subjective time are often at odds.  For example: a woman Llewyn knows is pregnant and he may be the father, so he makes an appointment for her to have an abortion.  He then goes on a road trip to Chicago for 29 minutes of this 99-minute film, having numerous misadventures along the way.  When he returns, he asks the woman whether her appointment went okay, and she furiously tells him that it isn't happening until Saturday.  "Yeah, boy, I'm sorry, I–I was away — well, it seemed like it was a long time but it was just a couple of days, yeah," he stammers apologetically.  I was equally shocked that so little time had passed!  But the most striking thing to me about Inside Llewyn Davis was that it seemed to obey the laws of a series rather than those of a standalone feature.  A series has a status quo: for instance, "pompous radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane lives with his father, a gruff, salt-of-the-earth retired cop".  Each episode threatens to shake up that status quo (Frasier gets a new girlfriend; will this become a long-term relationship? Frasier gets into a feud with his brother Niles; will this lead to a long-term break between them?), then dispenses with that threat (the new relationship doesn't last, the feud gets resolved, everything's back to normal by the next episode).  Sometimes a threat will last multiple episodes (Frasier gets fired, spends several episodes coping with unemployment, and gets re-hired); sometimes peripheral aspects of the status quo may change permanently (Niles and Daphne get married); but there is a basic core to which a series always returns until it finally reaches its last season and gives its characters a big sendoff.

In features, on the other hand, as soon as the story begins, the grand finale is lurking just a couple of hours away, give or take.  The status quo is introduced for the sole purpose of establishing what exactly is about to be disrupted for the duration of the running time — possibly to be restored at the end, but just as likely not.  The love interest probably will become the main character's happily-ever-after.  Or if a rogue planet or race of evil gods threatens to bring about the end of the world, it's entirely possible that the world will end, because the filmmakers don't need to keep the world around for next week's episode.  So I kept waiting for the event that was going to turn Llewyn's world upside down.  There were a lot of candidates:

  • Llewyn serves as a session musician for a novelty song, but signs away his future royalties in exchange for immediate cash.  Will the song become a smash hit, with Llewyn watching his partners become millionaires while he has nothing to show for his participation but two hundred dollars?

  • Llewyn learns that he is a father, as another woman he had impregnated a couple of years earlier didn't go through with her abortion and moved home to Akron instead.  Will Llewyn give up his life in the Village to be with her and their child?

  • Llewyn curses out a middle-aged woman who has frequently put him up for the night — and he even loses her cat!  Will Llewyn find that his couch-surfing options have dwindled to the point that he has to sleep on the street?

  • Llewyn goes to Chicago.  Does fate have something in store for him there?

  • Llewyn finally gives up on his life as a folk singer and signs back up with the merchant marine.  So is that the story, then?  Is it about a struggling artist's last week before giving up on his dream and joining the world of regular work — perhaps with an ironic twist as he returns from months at sea to find that Bob Dylan has turned the Village folk scene into a huge phenomenon and that everyone he used to know is famous now?

The answer, in every case, is no.  None of this jolts Llewyn out of his status quo!  Nothing happens with the novelty song.  Llewyn does see an off-ramp for Akron on his trip to Chicago, but doesn't take it.  Chicago has nothing in store for him, and he goes right back to New York.  His attempt to rejoin the merchant marine is stymied by the fact that his sister has thrown away his licenses, so he returns to folk singing.  The middle-aged woman forgives him (and her cat comes back on its own).  It seems that Llewyn can't burn his bridges no matter how much gasoline he pours on them — when he has a meltdown at a music club and gets thrown out, the owner forgives him and invites him right back to perform!  Inside Llewyn Davis is about a man whose status quo is a Weeble — no matter how much it wobbles, it just won't fall down.

One last, unrelated remark: this is not the sort of thing I usually care about or even notice — I have even made a big point in previous articles of saying that when this is a film's selling point, it's a sure sign that it is not for me — but I was very impressed by the quality of light in this movie.  The filmmakers really capture the feeling of stumbling out into a bleakly bright, cold, unwashed morning.  And I don't know why, but that is what the early '60s feel like to me!  Like, when I see early '60s design — product packaging, interior decoration, all of it — that is the quality of light that feels to me like it goes with it.  Good job, color graders!

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