Inside Llewyn Davis Gives Us Genuine Insight Into an Artist’s Life

Inside Llewyn DavisYou may be tricked by the ending of Coen brothers latest picture, Inside Llewyn Davis, to believe that nothing of significance happens to the titular character. That the endings’ return to the place where it all began signifies a lack of an arc, and that the events themselves are not going to have a lasting impact on Llewyn. This is wrong.

It’s true, the week or so over the course of which the film takes place does not end with some momentous change in the character’s life. Rather all of the story, the character’s evolution that takes place all serves to return the character to his status quo – which, as it happens, is a constant state of crisis, quitting, and change.

This understanding of the character is, in truth, what makes Inside Llewyn Davis so insightful. The central character, a struggling folk singer, may in another film seem very familiar – and, indeed, be rather boring at this point. What distinguishes Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Llewyn, however, is the fact that he’s not the naive, impassioned young musician we’ve seen portrayed a million times before. He is, rather, an old hand at this. While the first time we see him play is certainly beautiful – the film opens on that very image, an extended look at one of his songs that hints at a depth of suffering and self-understanding that, frankly, does not truly seem to exist in in the singer. Llewyn is not an enlightened, suffering artist, but rather a musician in the grip of boring reality. He makes money here and there recording a song or playing a gig, but his album is not selling well, and Llewyn is permanently couch surfing with people that, altogether, don’t seem to like him very much. Those who do like him, seemingly, do so by having to continuously forgive and forget his past slights and wrongs.

It would be easy to say that Llewyn Davis is simply a guy down on his luck, and that he is certainly the way he would present himself. The truth is, naturally, considerably more complex. While being, to a certain extent, a victim of is circumstance, he really does create much of the trouble he finds himself in. Definitely not through stupidity, which he could not be accused of – but occasionally due to the smugness his intelligence creates. Not through being an asshole, as he is often accused of, though he frequently takes his frustration out on those around him. Instead, he simply does not seem to be able to cope with his life properly. He despises mere “existence”, as he humorously accuses his father of, yet finds himself doing nothing more than that in the music world. His day-to-day is no more exciting than any one else’s existence. Neither is he himself burning with inner drive and enthusiasm about the music he’s making. Though he’s frequently shown playing, we never see his excitement about music, or a drive to succeed, which we must assume he must have had at some point in his career. It is perhaps not surprising, nor a spoiler, that he finds no major success with his music – neither during the course of the movie, nor, likely, later. He even attempts to quit music during the course of the film but finds, for various reasons, that he can’t even do that! Therefore, he is trapped, in his mundane, day-to-day existence, despite being a folk musician of some note. This shows that even in entertainment business, which we are so often trained to see as glamorous is just as conducive to boredom.

This is not to suggest that Inside Llewyn Davis is some dour, depressing film. It is, at times, as funny as anything the Coen brothers have put out. In fact, there isn’t even a tone of darkness, typically. Following Llewyn is not an unpleasant journey, because the Coen brothers refuse to make it so. It is full of enjoyable characters – small roles by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver, and John Goodman vary from serious with Mulligan to hilarious with the Coen veteran Goodman. It is the complex portrayal of the central character, however, that makes Inside Llewyn Davis a worthwhile film.

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Drive

Directed by Danish Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive a film of a very specific sort of beauty. The aesthetic is very detached, but it is that very detachment that manages to help us identify with the protagonist of the film, because he himself is coldly detached. The movie follows a man whose major characterization is driving around and listening to pop music.

We never learn the name of the protagonist driver, played by Ryan Gosling. Like the stereotypical western Man with No Name, the driver is more an archetype than an actual character. We aren’t meant to identify with the driver so much as watch him in a way that is as detached as the way he no doubt experiences the world. He is almost always calm and collected. What we learn throughout the course of the movie is that when that self-control is lost, the man is a beast, willing to perform any act to get revenge or justice.

All this is filmed with transcendent beauty and style. If one is to simply describe the plot of Drive, it may be possible to sell the movie, but to entirely the wrong audience. The movie transcends its genre of heist-movie-turned-revenge-thriller completely, the same way that Ryan Gosling’s character transcends that of a common criminal (which he is, talented though he may be). Certain scenes, which would be nothing short of disgusting, are instead breathtakingly beautiful. This isn’t because they are filmed in slow motion, which they sometimes are. Slow motion is typically done to be cool, to show masterful precision on the part of the characters, to show their straining muscles in great detail. One gets the impression that when this is used in Drive, it is rather to show that time really does seem to slow in intense moments.

The soundtrack, which consists largely of slow, deliberate pop songs, fits perfectly with the setting and the characterization. The music, also, transcends the confines of its genre when coming into play with the images on the screen, creating very memorable sequences where the music and the visuals are inseparable.

The supporting actors are worth noting as well – Carey Mulligan plays the love interest for the protagonist in a way that appropriately expresses a genuine fragility. The part is tough because in truth she isn’t given very much to do in the film, she needs to play in a fairly confined role of a very confined woman. However, the character comes off as very real in her portrayal, which is certainly commendable. The other characters are similarly confined in their roles, but none come off as unconvincing. Ron Perlman is, as usual, very enjoyable in his role as a gangster who was never accepted the way he wanted to be due to his ethnicity.