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Coen brothers compose a tale of choice in 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

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Founder and Editor, The Weekender

JANUARY 17, 2014

It’s winter 1961, and Llewyn Davis doesn’t have a coat. He sleeps on couches he isn’t wanted on, his self-titled folk album isn’t selling and an adorable cat he is supposed to take care of keeps running away. Joel and Ethan Coen’s most recent masterpiece, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” chronicles a week in the life of this dejected folk singer and explores the interwoven nature of grief, passion and the power of music.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaacs) never smiles. He barely lets any emotions show, but when he plays music he seems to live. These moments appear to be the only times he feels inspired. In a similar way, they are the only moments in the film that feel warm. Almost every song is played in its entirety in the movie, and the editing allows the viewer to feel absorbed. Oscar Isaac’s voice is raw and gripping. His work with T Bone Burnett, the producer behind the music for many Coen brothers films including “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” paid off. His passion and intensity are believable. Almost every song is about saying goodbye, which is fitting, considering Llewyn is grieving for his music partner who recently died.

The film is a reminder of the complexity of human nature and the paradoxical power music can have over an individual. It seems that the only moments Llewyn can completely let himself feel are when he sings, yet regardless of his talent and passion, music is constantly the catalyst of unfortunate circumstances in his life.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” explores the extent to which individuals control their lives. As humans on this planet, we are driven by our feelings, shaped by our choices, and all the while live at the mercy of others and the hands we are dealt. Llewyn continually faces choices and makes decisions that weigh unevenly on emotions or practicality. He seems to put his heart into taking care of a cat, only to abandon it. He routinely makes decisions that hurt those who care about him, but he is not narcissistic. No matter the misery that accompanies his choices, to Llewyn, getting a “normal” job and living to merely exist would be intolerable. He lives for his music and tolerates the irony of his choices.

The film also explores how the choices he does make lock him in a cycle of rejection. Llewyn is offered help and rejects it, and he can’t seem to commit to relationships. Just like the many folk songs in the movie, the film itself follows a repetitive pattern. The first and last scene are the same, leaving Llewyn back on the bottom where he started. The cyclical nature of the film lets the emotions that drive Llewyn resonate with the viewers instead of focusing on the plot line.

While the film may not be climactic or exhilarating, it expresses the torment and beauty that come with wanting something so badly and believing in art over everything else. While there is no big record deal happy ending, the film has an aura of hopefulness. The Coen brothers gave their characters the freedom to make mistakes, and as directors they gave themselves the freedom to make a film about a part of life that is hard to articulate and even harder to experience. They gave a snapshot into a character’s life without trying to resolve his problems or take away his free will. Instead, they told Llewyn Davis’s story, the story of the 1960s folk-revival movement.

Contact Anya Schultz at 


JANUARY 18, 2014