Sunday, December 29, 2013

Review - Inside Llewyn Davis

If I had wings like Noah's dove,
I'd fly up the river to the one I love,
Oh fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well.
There's a timeless quality to folk music that allows it to resonate for generations because its poetry finds new life with every re-imagining. “Fare Thee Well” (quoted above and throughout this review) can be traced back to 1908 Texas, but has been interpreted and reinterpreted by artists ranging from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan to Jeff Buckley, and now the Coen brothers in their brilliant new film Inside Llewyn Davis. It's just one of several traditional folk songs masterfully curated and re-purposed by the gifted ear of T-Bone Burnett to breathe truth and illumination into this transfixing character study of a sour musician (Oscar Isaac) trying vainly to get his career and life on track.

Well I had a man who was long and tall,
Who moved his body like a cannonball,
Oh fare the well, my honey, fare thee well.

“How are you with harmonies?” asks one coldly pragmatic record executive who doesn't see a lot of money in Llewyn Davis' act, but could possibly use his voice in a trio. Unfortunately, Llewyn doesn't harmonize with people. He did once have a partner who was long and tall, but haunted by painful history, his life has regressed to a solo act of self-obsession. Now existing – though he is loathe to “just, exist” – in a self-imposed infinite loop of couch-crashing vagrancy, he cycles through the houses of his friends in the hipster community of 1961 Greenwich Village, playing the odd gig at the Gaslight Café while the boxes of his solo album go unsold.

He awakes one morning, after a particularly unpleasant run-in with an anonymous assailant the night before, in the apartment of his friends the Gorfeins – parents of his former partner. As he heads out to find his next accommodation, we hear their soulful duet of “Fare Thee Well” ghosting through the soundtrack...

I remember one evening in the pouring rain,
And in my heart was an aching pain,
Oh fare the well, my honey, fare thee well.

Even though the December drizzle chills, Llewyn roams about the lower west side of Manhattan in only his thin corduroy jacket (expertly selected by costume designer Mary Zophres, whose fashion eye ensures that this is one of the year's best dressed films) and carrying only his guitar case and a mischievous tabby cat he unwittingly acquired that morning. The bitterness – of both the cold and his disposition – practically emanates from the screen, with Bruno Delbonnel's soft, desaturated photography beautifully putting the winter into Llewyn's discontent. Ill-dressed as he is for the winter weather, so too his he ill-dressed for the responsibilities of adult life.
Possessing neither the foresight to plan ahead nor the courage to face the past, Llewyn strives to live in the moment, which is why he's so blind to the detrimental patterns of his life. His biggest concern is finding a few dollars for his pocket and a couch for the night. True, a rolling stone gathers no moss, but Llewyn is a stone that's rolling in an inexplicable circle, doomed to end up right where he started. The Coen's screenplay adopts a cyclic structure that nicely compliments Llewyn's existential dilemma, with both Modernist and classical influences felt throughout; Anyone who doubts the inspiration served by Homer or James Joyce need only wait for the reveal of that tabby cat's name.

But beneath his bohemian lifestyle runs a deep current of guilt and remorse. Oscar Isaac gives a superb, weathered performance that explores his complex character through unaffected subtlety and impressive musicality. It takes a special breed of performer to truly act through song, but when one hears Isaac wrench out lyrics like...

Muddy rivers, muddy and wild,
Can't give a bloody for my unborn child,
Fare the well, my honey, fare thee well.

… it becomes clear that he's singing much more than words on a page.

But by the film's end, as Llewyn's odyssey draws full circle, what isn't quite clear is exactly to whom or what Llewyn is bidding farewell. His erstwhile artistic partner? The women he loved none too wisely nor well? Any of the people whose orbit he enters (fleshed out by a meticulously chosen roster of actors and singers), only to be gone again in the morning? Or is it a resigned goodbye to the better, richer life he could have lived if only he had the fortitude to find his wings?

So sure as a bird flying high above,
Life ain't worth living without the one you love,
Fare the well, my honey, fare thee well.

**** out of ****


  1. thoughts on Carey Mulligan's performance ?

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.