The Premise: The epic journey of one man intent on proving that his music is worth the sacrifice of friendship, family, and stability.
—— The Review
Llewyn Davis is a musician. His former partner has passed away and he is trying to make a go of it on his own. His music is still Folk music but grittier, more honest while, the clean Lawrence Welk style Folk is still at the forefront of the industry. This is the week that Llewyn will decide whether he will be a musician for life or give it all up and go back to working for the Merchant Marines.
But, the story is much more than that. Llewyn has made a decision: That his music comes first. Over family. Over friends. Over having a room to call his own. Over every other responsibility. He made this decision before we meet him. He had a life before we arrived this Saturday night as he sings at his local haunt, The Gaslight. The night he apologizes for the trouble he caused the night before -A night we never see- but, the consequences of that night are to be walloped by a shadowy pugilist in a back alley.
Played by Oscar Isaac (Suckerpunch, 2011), Llewyn is stuck in a kind of purgatory. He is in neither Heaven nor Hell; doomed to repeat the same days ad infinitum. Because, he never learns from his mistakes he will never rise above this life he is treading water through. A self fulfilling prophecy; he causes the negativity that surrounds him but, wonders why he hasn’t filled more clubs or been discovered by a reputable record company.
The film itself is a circle and this reviewer is still at a loss whether the story is a week in the life of Llewyn Davis or the same week lived over and over in hopes that one day Llewyn will learn his lesson and make the correct decisions to move him to the next plateau. The title might be the key, not simply the name of Llewyn Davis’ debut solo record but a play on words hinting that we are, indeed, inside the tormented mind of Llewyn Davis. Perhaps Llewyn is forever rooted to the wet stone behind the Gaslight pub where that Shadowy man laid him out. That as Llewyn watched the cab drive away he wondered if it is all worth it.
The other co-star of note is the cat. To be fair, two cats but in Llewyn’s story of his life they could be interchangeable. A cat(s) whose name he does not know until late in the relationship yet it belongs to the Gorfeins- the same Gorfeins who are the last of his friends who will help Llewyn out regardless of whether he causes Mrs. Gorfein to weep and leave the dinner table. Another subdued statement on Llewyn’s lack of human connection and accountability. How does one not know the name of their closest ally’s pet?
But back to the cat(s): At the beginning of his epic journey Llewyn neglects to prevent the cat from escaping the Gorfein’s apartment and in-turn loses the cat in the cold streets of Greenwich Village only to find it again the next day. Sunsequently, the cat joins Llewyn on his epic journey to Chicago where he intends to meet Bud Grossman, played by F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus, 1984). Perhaps it is prophetic that because of the the time he spends with the cat that at the end of the film after another night on the Gorfein’s couch Llewyn actually remembers to fixed a past mistake and block the cat from escaping. Perhaps having spent more solo time with this tabby cat he has formed more of a bond than any of the other humans in his life.
Bud Grossman is Llewyn perceived saviour. He believes that once Bud recognizes the his genius everything would in his life would fall in to place. That all the sacrifices of friendship and accountability would not have been in vain. History, as they say, is written by the victor and once Llewyn wins who will recall that he used so many to arrive their but instead recognize his talent and focus.
While the record industry is chasing the white-bread Lawrence Welk Folk music Llewyn can be considered ahead of the pack. His thoughtful honest lyrics, his darker honest observations are a contrast to the clean cut sweater-clad folk groups of the time. The world might not be ready for him, yet. And at the end of the film when he leaves the comfort of The Gaslight where he only just plated a familiar voice adjust his harmonica and begins to sing. A voice of a generation. For you never want to be the first to do something- the world may not embrace it- you want to be second. Young Llewyn is left to ponder his life after a tolchoking from that shadowy man while on the stage is someone we all know will change the direction of music as much as anyone.
Although the whole of the film should be considered one epic journey the mid-film road trip from New York to Chicago… and back again. The first leg of the trip Llewyn joins a very vocal jazz man, played by John Goodman (Matinee, 1993) and a surly poet, played by Garrett Hedlund (Georgia Rule, 2007) who call in to question Llewyn’s choice of musical disciplines. Jazz musicians are the mathematicians of the musical world; only a select group of people can truly understand what the great jazz artists are creating inside their time signatures that AM radio POP song machine would consider akin to Calculus.
This man points out to our hero how common his, and most music is—which pokes Llewyn’s already shaky confidence but, what Llewyn does not recognize is that he is this man. What we only hear smatterings about and finally witness later in this ouroboros of a life when, back at The Gaslight Llewyn calls out the older folk singers that he so desperately wishes to distance himself from, he’s folk but not that folk.
Ultimately Llewyn is aware of his bristly personality to a point where -in another reference to a circle- he references that he rounds through his friends and acquaintances as he offends then and then, perhaps because they recognize that spark that star that is burning in his chest- they take him back. And so it goes. And that is what makes Llewyn’s story that much more heartbreaking and pathetic. He knows he is making the wrong decisions but, as he rages against the world his fear of fading in to a footnote of the folk scene of Greenwich village he ignores his superego and barks at the ever dwindling helping hands. Perhaps his final words are not spoken to the yellow cab speeding the shadowy man away but to himself.
“Au Revoir,” he says. Good-bye old Llewyn, perhaps tomorrow will be another day. Perhaps he won't again wake up on the Gorfein’s couch with the universe encouraging him to learn a few more lessons.
—— The Denouement.
The Coens have given us their deepest film yet. Layered with observations regarding the innate drive of artists. To forsake all others for your craft; Llewyn represents that part most us keep in check. That part that would love to strip down to our birthday suits, toss our digital watches and pursue our dreams. But! we have a house to pay for; car payments; kid’s college fund to squirrel away. PTA meetings and the latest episode of our favourite HBO series to catch.
How many other musicians and artist have had their metaphorical week that ended with a cold, broken lamenting of whether it is all just masturbation? What a grand film with even more grand performances. A subtle deconstruction of an artist on the verge of a breakdown or stardom.
James C. The Cold Open-BC