INSIDE LLWEYN DAVIS
DIRECTOR: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
CAST: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Max Casella, John Goodman
Llweyn Davis (Isaac) is not unlike the cat that is his companion and soulmate in this film — as sure of his own importance, seeking love, and oblivious to returning it. It doesn’t help that he is also a musician on the fringes of the folk music revival of the 1960s in America, with more than a foot but less than his soul in.
His partner dead, his first solo album unsold, his agent not forthcoming with any money, Davis spends nights at the home of friends who are kind enough to have him — or rather not cruel enough to turn him out — and freezes in the cold without an overcoat. It’s easier to see his failure though as a moral victory, compared to those who “sold out”, even as he unapologetically helps himself to the resources of the latter. Davis is too churlish to acknowledge talent in others, dismissive of successful acts, and harsh about those not obviously luxuriating in failure as himself. A talented and nice soldier-singer is mocked as a killing machine, a fling, Jean (Mulligan), as a “careerist”, and her husband Jim (Timberlake) made fun of his crowd-pleasing notes.
The Coen Brothers, whose career is rife with characters like Davis knocking from the outside — and who could almost be one themselves but to their self-aware amazement aren’t — go their most intimate with Davis. It’s an honest yet unsentimental look at a business that considers itself almost disdainfully different from the very everyday people it celebrates. If Davis is one angle of it, and Jim and the soldier-singer the other, there is also Jean. While married to Jim, she had a fling with Davis, and now doesn’t know whose child she is carrying. She blames Davis fully, and much of her anger clearly stems from the fact that she can love him but she ought to choose Jim as he is the one with a home (Davis, who is only too happy with that, doesn’t point this out).
The film begins with Davis at a club in 1961, singing the most haunting song of the very many in the film. He is told a “friend” is waiting outside, steps out only to be beaten, and wakes up what appears to be the next morning at a professor couple’s home. They teach at Columbia University, and they are as distant as they can come from Davis’s friends in the Village, all struggling artists. Well-meaning as the professors are, it’s unclear whether for them Davis is more than an impressive evening amusement, a fact that Davis realises. Stepping out of their home, Davis manages to lock their cat out, and it is as he lugs this and then another cat and the rest of his gear, that the film traces his week.
It includes a surreal trip to Chicago with a druggie jazz artist (John Goodman) and his Beat Poet “valet”. The first won’t stop talking, the latter won’t speak at all, except when he reads out a strange verse, and in their varying absorptions, they could be two sides of Davis himself — the one with delusions of art, and the other beyond delusions. Davis comes to several crossroads on that trip, and most times, he takes the easier way out. However, that’s not counting the time he is freezing in the middle of snow with soaked socks — a silent, lovely scene — or when he turns down a prized gig as it requires him to largely obliviate himself.
The Coens — who also wrote the script, that is partly inspired by the autobiography of folk singer Dave Van Ronk and draws on many real singers — appear to draw an arc but, honest to their character, stop short of it.
The story may seem a little unfulfilling as a result, but whether it is its heartwarming music (performed by the actors themselves, in full and mostly live) or its portrayals, this is a film deeply fulfilling.