Much like the somber melodies that float throughout its 105-minute runtime, Inside Llewyn Davis will remain lodged in your head weeks after you and the film first meet. With Oscar Isaac's "Fare thee we-e-ell..." ringing daintily in your ears, you'll shuffle out from the grasp of the Coen Brothers' wonderland of gray, but you won't soon be able to relieve yourself of what is arguable the pair's best film yet. Llewyn's is a story so outstandingly simple — he's a man who's s**t out of luck, and not especially deserving of any. He wakes up, loses his friend's cat, plays some music, and wishes things were better. And yet his is the Coens' most invigorating and deftly human tale yet.
Llewyn Davis makes the bold, but practical, choice of never insisting that we love its hero. He's effectively a jackass, justifying all the waste he has incurred with the rudeness he showers on the majority of those in his acquaintance. But Llewyn Davis isn't the villain here, either. The villain is the industry, and all the uphill battles inherent to its machinations. The villain isn't Llewyn's substantially more successful contacts — an old pal Jim (Justin Timberlake) and new fellow couch-surfer Troy (Stark Sands), but the listening public that prefers their saccharine pop to his dreary drips of misery. The villain isn't Llewyn's resentful old flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), no matter how many volatile admonitions she might shoot his way, but the act of God surrounding their unwitting adherence to one another. And it's not even the cantankerous and foul Roland Turner (a delightfully hammy John Goodman), but the endless, frigid open road of which each man is a prisoner (if the film has one flaw, it's that this segment carries on just a bit too long, but that might very well be the point). The villain is the cold.
Call it all a raw deal. But the real dynamism isn't in the challenges that happen outside Llewyn Davis, but in the determined toxicity brewing inside as he meets each and every one.
But this isn't the Coen Brothers' Murphy's Law comedy A Serious Man — we don't watch a chaotic pileup of every imaginable trick that the devil can manage to pull. Llewyn is steady throughout, not burying Llewyn deeper but keeping him on the ground, with the fruit-bearing branches forever out of his reach. In its narrative, Llewyn Davis is as close to natural life as any of the filmmakers' works to date. Perfectly exhibited in a late scene involving a trip to Akron, Llewyn isn't a cinematic construct, but the sort of person we know, so painfully, that we are very likely to be... on our bad days.
Still, working in such a terrific harmony with the grounded feel of Llewyn himself, we have that Coen whimsy in their delivery of 1960s New York City — rather, a magic kingdom painted in the stellar form of a 1960s New York City. And not the New York City we're given by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Closer, maybe, to Spike Lee or Sydney Lumet, but still a terrain unique to moviegoers. A New York that's always recovering from a hostile rain, and always promising another 'round the bend. One that flickers like a dying bulb, with its million odd beleaguered moths buzzing around it against the pull of logic. There is something so incredibly alive about the Coens' crying city; this hazy dream world's partnership with half-dead, anchored-to-earth portrait like Llewyn is the product of such sophisticated imagination at play.
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And to cap this review of one of the best features 2013 has given us, it's only appropriate to return to the element in which its identity is really cemented: the music. Without the tunes bobbing through the story, we'd still likely find something terrific in Llewyn Davis. But the music, as beautiful as it is, is the reason for the story. As we watch Isaac's hopeless sad sack drag himself through Manhattan's winter, past the helping hands of friends and into the grimaces of strangers, as we struggle with our own handfuls of nihilistic skepticism that any of this yarn is worth the agony (or that our attention to its meandering nature is worth the price of a ticket), we are given the rare treat of an answer. Of course it's all for something. Of course it's all about something. It's about that beautiful, beautiful music.
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S1E3: I’m sure that the people who work on Luck love gambling, but not remotely as much as they love horses. In fact, it seems as though all of the gambling material depicted onscreen is primarily for utility purposes. The characters rattle off jargon in Aaron Sorkin-paced conversations but without the flare that the West Wing characters seemed to have for global affairs.
Maybe it’s the nature of the subject matter: the characters ensconced in Luck’s world of gambling are almost by definition fractured people. Nobody, save slightly for Ace Bernstein, has anything going on in his life outside of the racetrack or the casino. But beyond this, I think the show is at its weakest when it is projecting the ins and outs of the gambling universe, and is at its strongest when examining Bernstein's dwindling mind, Walter Smith's sunken heart, or the at-odds-with-the-world-and-everything-in-it sensation that overtakes the four man band of Marcus, Jerry, Renzo and Lonnie. Luckily, we get plenty of that—we (and the writers) just have to wade through the betting talk to get there.
“Can’t be straight-forward. More important to him that you see he’s intelligent.” – Ace
Every other line spoken by Ace Bernstein so far reflects the man’s going mind and, more broadly, his palpable ascension in years. Clearly, his three years in prison took a lot out of him—the disloyalty from his former partner has left a cold fissure in his heart, and his mind is worse for the wear. So the introduction of Nathan Israel—a man who represents youth in all conceivable ways—is an interesting method for the show, and Ace, to take in terms of the master plan against the nefarious Mike.
Israel is present at Ace’s board meeting during a discussion about the racetrack purchase. The young man is extremely intelligent, but is cocky beyond belief. He is masterful at doubletalk but does not seem to be weathered in the world of business, through which men like Ace traversed to reach their acclaim. Despite (or maybe because of) this, Ace chooses Israel as a piece of the master plan…to which we’re still not entirely privy.
Israel is invited to Ace’s penthouse to “interview” with him and Gus. They test the young man with mind games. They don’t say a word to him on the way up to the room, they counter everything he says with critique (Ace’s mind may be going, but that’s hardly evident in scenes like this); ultimately, however, Ace seems interested with Israel as a vehicle for his devices. Gus, on the other hand, looks to carry a bit of distaste for the kid.
Ep.3 Clip - Ace Meets with the Board “Guy asks me about a girl I used to see. Maybe I still got eyes for her. I tell him she’s got crabs.” – Jerry
Lonnie is recovering reasonably well from the beating he took last week. While Marcus and an eager Renzo take care of their business partner, Jerry is in charge of overseeing the deal to purchase Escalante’s racehorse claimed by the cowboy Mulligan. Jerry manages a deal with both Mulligan and Escalante, earning the boys ownership of the horse in question. What we’re served when the foursome visit Escalante to finalize the ownership and meet their new horse in person is a very strange, particularly interesting, and kind of beautiful scene. These four men—a miserly misanthrope, a shady gambling addict, an airhead and a lustful bore—are all entranced by the majesty of the animal to which they’ve just been assigned ownership. They’re all stricken silent with mouths agape at the sight of their horse, which, at this moment, seems to transcend the state of being from financial asset to something much grander. In the scenes from the first two episodes wherein Walter Smith professes his adoration for horses, he seems a bit like the outlier. But when these men, whose combined discernible depth is microscopic, gaze in awe at the mighty racehorse, it seems as though the show—not just the characters— is exemplifying its worship of the species.
Ep.3 Clip - Crowded Elevator “Your ma says you have to learn to land differently.” – Joey The pilot episode showed us the dangers that horses undergo in the track races. But this week, we see that it’s no picnic for jockeys either. The young Cajun racer Leon passes out early on in the episode from a lack of food. Keeping low weight as a jockey is demanding enough to make the kid faint. And hazards are plentiful on the track as well. Smith’s racer Ronnie Jenkins is tossed from his horse mid-race thanks to some rough riding by competitors and he is substantially injured. This leaves Smith’s horse without a jockey—a fate he might have avoided if he hadn’t let Rosie go a week prior. Smith considers phoning Rosie and asking her to assume the role of his jockey, if only temporarily. We get good insight into the character: alone in his home, Smith juggles what he might say to Rosie before calling her, stammering unevenly and eventually erupting into a nearly mad spell of self-directed lashing out. Ace Bernstein might profess openly his “going mind,” but he’s not the one whose sanity we have to worry about on this show. The broken man that is Walter Smith seems to have a lot in store in the realm of emotional spiraling—the moment we met him, he was already heading downward with militant speeds. We also get to see a brief glimpse into the person life of the mysterious, contentious Escalante: apparently, he and inspector Jo have maintained something of a romance amid their hostile work relationship. What did you think of this week’s episode? Do you find the show does better in its romanticizing of the relationships and the horses, as opposed to the mechanics of the gambling world? What do you think Ace has in store for Israel? Let us know in the comments section, or on Twitter (@MichaelArbeiter).