Monday, October 6, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis
Photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC

2 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Achievement in Cinematography - Bruno Delbonnel
Nomination: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing - Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland

Since watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I have read several glowing reviews and articles about the film, searching for an explanation of what I missed.  The vast majority of critics and thinkers about film, including several who I deeply respect, loved Inside Llewyn Davis, praising the Coen Brothers for the moody and ambiguous nature of this brooding film.  Though I loved a few aspects of the film - especially its musical performances - and take no exception with its two nominations, I still feel that I must be missing something.  I thought Inside Llewyn Davis was a terrible film.

This shouldn't be the case.  I have more Bob Dylan songs in my iTunes library than any other artist, and have many tracks by Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the two primary models for the film's protagonist.  I watched Martin Scorsese's epic Bob Dylan documentary while vacationing in the Bahamas, choosing to watch black and white footage on my iPad rather than gaze at the technicolor beaches.  I blazed through Greil Marcus's often rambling but never boring discourse on Dylan, and have inhaled every tale of the early days of the New York folk scene.  This was a film that was made for me, and yet I hated it.

Joel Coen said, perhaps speciously, that the film "doesn't really have a plot," which is why they "threw the cat in," referring to an ongoing element of the plot in which Llewyn loses his friends' cat.  It's hard to know if Coen was just being glib, and he and his brother have certainly made similar dismissive comments about their other films.  Yet the comment is all too true regarding Inside Llewyn Davis.  The lack of a plot isn't the problem, it's the thrown in elements.  We are left to watch Llewyn wander, sabotaging himself and making more poor choices than a prom queen in a slasher film.  We don't know what drives these self-destructive choices, we don't know why he's making the choices, and, as a result, we don't care about the choices.  Something meaningful is clearly happening to Llewyn, but we're never let in on the secret.

The film would be almost completely unwatchable if it weren't for Bruno Delbonnel's moody cinematography and the wonderful music produced by T Bone Burnett.  When a film features musicians as its subjects, the importance of the music is elevated, and T Bone Burnett was both the obvious and perfect choice to handle the film's music.  The recurring folk standard "Dink's Song" is lovely throughout, and is at its best when duetted by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford.  Several other songs are simultaneously evocative of their era and completely original, but "Please Mr. Kennedy" is by far the most memorable.  Sung by Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver, the song is a desperately needed moment of levity in the film, and one of the film's true delights.  

The Coen Brothers are never boring, and I have always found their worst films compulsively watchable.  Inside Llewyn Davis made me question this.  The film is saved, to an extent, by its music; without the Cafe Wha?-esque music, I'm not sure I could have made it through Inside Llewyn Davis.

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