Film Review: Fascinating Search for Meaning ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

ILD-02813-ctIt’s tempting, but too easy, to filter Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterfully melancholy Inside Llewyn Davis – in Nashville only at Belcourt Theatre – through James Joyce and Homer. Oh yes, the siblings have some fun with that, given that the lead character must grapple with a here-one-minute-and-gone-the-next cat named Ulysses (the Latinized form of Odysseus, who as lit students know features prominently in “The Odyssey” and other parts of Homer’s epic cycle) and yet another siren-like John Goodman-portrayed character for the Coen canon.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS 2But as with much of their best work there’s enough left unsaid or unseen to leave this feature and its inhabitants open for a multitude of interpretations. Take us any way you like, the Coens seem to say time and time again, we just want you to take us. Perhaps that’s one reason after three decades that a new feature from them claims as much delightful anticipation from critics and other film fans as the presents children spot under the Christmas tree each Dec. 25.

ILD-05466-ctThe lead character’s Welsh first name means either “like a lion” or “shining one,” depending on the source one accepts. That’s ironic for the title character, since the only time he fits those descriptions is when he’s singing – we get our first taste of that at the film’s outset when Davis (played with star-making depth by Oscar Isaac) sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” and later with riveting renditions of “The Death of Queen Anne” and “The Shoals Of Herring.” (Credit Music Supervisor T Bone Burnett for again providing a soundtrack to a Coen Brothers film that both underscores and illuminates the story.)

ILD-02136-ctIf there is simplicity in this profundity it’s the basic storyline: we follow a bumpy and literally bruising week in the largely unlikable Llewyn’s life which includes battles with his manager (the late Jerry Greyson) who wants him to record something more commercial since his first album with his now-dead singing partner tanked and the wife (played with understandably sharp edges by Carey Mulligan) of his buddy Jim (nice work from Justin Timberlake), who tells Davis he’s like “the brother of King Midas”. He manages to hurt the feelings of the only people who remain devoted fans of his work (a sweetly sympathetic Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) and spends money from recording a novelty song on an ill-fated trip to Chicago in the company of a drug-riddled bluesman (played by Goodman with his typical zest for such grotesques) and his driver (still waters run deep from Garrett Hedlund).

ILD-00775-ctThe story is set in 1961 before the hurricane known as Bob Dylan blew artists such as Davis away in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village and elsewhere. But while Davis is loosely based on the late Dave Van Ronk, the movie isn’t historical fiction; it’s another Coen Brothers fable where their look at Sisyphus-like failure through the mythical filter of the American Dream is very poignant. And with the brownish hues of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography the wind that’s blowing around and through Inside Llewyn Davis feels like a bracing winter chill. We can all relate to that feeling, no matter what our take on this intriguing film.





Inside Llewyn Davis (www.insidellewyndavis.com) opens in Nashville Dec. 20 exclusively at the Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.); click here for showtimes and to buy tickets. Rated R for language including some sexual references, 115 min. Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Starring Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Ethan Phillips, Stark Sands, Adam Driver and Jeanine Serralles. Opening night special guests: Following the 7:10 p.m. screening veteran musician and musical historian Pete Finney will lead a conversation with Grammy Award-winning songwriter, singer and author Janis Ian, who began her career in the 1960s New York City folk scene depicted in the film; and songwriter and Rhino Books owner Fred Koller, who, like Janis, was a close friend of Dave Van Ronk.

ILD-01112-ct*Photos by Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC courtesy CBS Films.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).