Folk music is hateful stuff: Inside Llewyn Davis

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I have to start with a disclaimer …

I cannot tolerate a movie where animals are hurt or in peril. I knew going into Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from the acerbic yet cynically humanistic writer/director team Joel and Ethan Coen, that a runaway cat is a central narrative element. Hell, the orange tabby is on the damn poster, clutched in the titular anti-hero’s arms as Llewyn saunters down a busy New York street.

Have you ever tried to hold a cat in one arm, a guitar in the other, while walking down a bustling thoroughfare?!? Exactly.

I will offer for my fellow animal advocates (spoiler alert!) that the cat is ok. Sort of.

A cat runs out a fire escape window and disappears. A cat reappears. A cat makes it home. A cat takes a road trip to Chicago. And a cat (or something) has a limp-inducing near miss with a car on a snowy road. Might be the same cat. Might not. I’m not sure what all these orange cats signify, but the Coen Brothers love their oddball metaphors, even if PETA (or yours truly) is inflamed in the process.

(As a side note, for viewers like me who, yes … of course! … worry about cinematic animal safety much more than that of human counterparts, there is a website for us. Thanks to Kim Elizabeth Johnson for alerting me to it.)

So, with that point made, how is the movie? Quite good actually. It is one of the Coens’ most sedate offerings, bleakly transporting viewers to grungy Greenwich Village in the 1960s where the folk music scene appears to be atrophying before the ascent of pop derivatives like Bob Dylan and his ilk.

Llewyn, played wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, is a failed troubadour, whose singing partner is long gone and who subsists on a steady diet of cigarettes, self-loathing, and couch-crashing at a succession of annoyed friends’ apartments. Isaac is a marvel, resisting every urge to make Llewyn one bit redeeming or likable. He is a wretched human (with a lovely voice) consumed by a toxic brew of pretension, insecurity, jealousy, bitterness, condescension, and holier than thou artsy-fartsiness.

(Oh, how I’ve known too many dudes like this fellow – folks who are so got by their own disappointments that they have to kick sand in the faces of any and everyone else with the tiniest shred of talent or even the slightest bit of creative happiness. Ah, that felt better.)

Often with a Coen Brothers film (in fact their best ones – like Barton Fink or the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men), you’re left wondering: what was their intention exactly? This film, like others in their oeuvre, offers their trademark circular non-ending ending, and, as we departed the theatre, I overheard a few folks asking, “What was that about?”

I’ll tell you what I think. Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with a theme that shoots through much of the Coen Brothers work: frustration over the venom creative people spew at each other in their dogged competition for limited resources, attention, and fame. Actors and singers and writers and painters and dancers are all a bit broken, and they make their way into careers that are often doomed from the start, compounded by a cruelly competitive system that rewards the schemers and abandons the weak.

With this acidic lens, the Coens turn their filmic gaze on folk music, one of the more self-satisfied forms of artistic expression. At surface, folk music has always been about gathering the tribe to celebrate our commonality; yet, in reality, it is usually a vehicle for some twee turtleneck-wearing phony to look down his or her nose at middle-class plebes who are scraping by with their staid corporate lives and suffocating mortgage payments.

The Coens dive right into the heart of that notion, and not with the campy satire of Christopher Guest’s similarly themed A Mighty Wind, but with the unsympathetic bruised heart of a Sidney Lumet or a John Cassavetes with just a smidge of their own asburdist twinkle.

The supporting cast is populated with assorted odd ducks stepping on the heads of their fellow “artists” in hopes of making a buck or two. Justin Timberlake is adequate in a throwaway role as an earnest folkie who writes a really godawful song with unsurprising populist appeal. John Goodman is sheer brilliance as a mean-as-a-rattlesnake jazz musician who shows his contempt for Llewyn and his chosen genre with a steady stream of vitriol, leveled at what he deems inane and amateurish musicianship. The normally exquisite Carey Mulligan struggles a bit with a one-note role (and equally bad wig) as an ambitious ladder-climbing folkie who may or may not be pregnant with Llewyn’s child.

Previously mentioned feline concerns aside, I recommend Inside Llewyn Davis to anyone who has found themselves lost in a creative bubble, not sure whom to trust or where to go. As they say, karma will get you, and perhaps that is the ultimate lesson we glean from Llewyn’s neglect of cats and people. What goes around comes around. And folk music is hateful stuff.

10 thoughts on “Folk music is hateful stuff: Inside Llewyn Davis

  1. i want to see this, the premise sounds interesting and i love the coens. i generally enjoy jt, too bad he wasn’t given more of a meaty role. happy the cat was okay too )

  2. YOU ARE THE BEST REVIEWER EVER IN THE HISTORY OF CRITIQUING…you not only pay a tribute to the efforts of film-makers, you supply us with wonder truthful asides about the human “race” everytime…every damned time! Your essays are a marvel! On several levels. Perhaps not for the over-sensitive or faint-hearted or the envious although the fair-minded “get” your message! BRAVO, ROY, AND THEN SOME!

  3. Pingback: Guitar heroes and heartaches: Howie Day at Ann Arbor’s The Ark « Reel Roy Reviews

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