Saw it twice in theater in early 2014 and then a third time in March 2018 and a fourth in January 2020
I don’t want to overreact to a recent viewing but I think it does go down as the Coen brothers’ best work
I was wrong in 2014 to think this was a narratively-led film. I mean the narrative is absolutely brilliant but this is a tremendous visual triumph, hyper-atmospheric in its detail (bleak, freezing)—absolutely beautiful. The period detail is impeccable—the lighting—the Coen Brothers showing they don’t have to work with Deakins to create a film that looks like this (I don’t think they ever have). The DP here is Oscar-nominated (for this) by Bruno Delbonnel who worked on Amelie and A Very Long Engagement among other films with Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
The lights pouring in at the Gaslight give us some of the best images of 2013. And the film in it’s entirely has a washed out look—like a cloud is hanging over the entire film—everyone looks pale, very wintery, waiflike, haunting– chilly
I wouldn’t mistake this for Antonioni’s best work exactly but there are shots of Isaac’s Davis being oppressed by the city and world around around him, walking up the stairs, the narrow hallways in the tragically small apartment building
The cat is not just a symbol but an important part of one reason to root for Isaac’s otherwise unpleasant character—there’s a morality here
The Coen brothers make films that are indelibly their own—and have their distinct voice—as this film does—but they are also very keen on the detail for the time, place and local vernacular and flavor. This film could only take places in the winter (perhaps as much so, or close, as Fargo is set in the winter) and only during this era in Greenwich Village.
It’s a study of the artist vs. the system- or art vs commerce (or art vs. Hollywood for the Coens). The “Please Mr. Kennedy” scene shows that explicitly and the “I don’t see a lot of money here” dagger.
The film wonderfully bookends with the same night at the Gaslight—you need to see the full film (and probably at least twice) to fully take it in but the night he splits the basket (divides money from the crowd) with Bob Dylan is the night Dylan becomes a star and the night he gets a punch in the face— The Coen brothers and their obsession with fate—true auteurs. It’s a devastating moment as is the Murray Abraham line and advice
Llewyn Davis is as vivid a character as the Coen’s have produced—even if he’s not nearly as likeable as The Big Lebowski or Marge Gunderson- so richly complex and profoundly sad. Closest earlier cousin (both in character and film) may be Barton Fink
Oscar Isaac is a revelation—a young Pacino in the making. And he could go on to be the best actor of a generation and he will never top this
Tragically sad “hang me” opening—the song “If I had Wings”
Again, the viewing needs the entirety of the running time (and then some) to fully accept. It’s not easy, even with the flashback there’s no “last week” from the Coen’s
A medication on grief (his former partner comes up 4 times in first 30 minutes) but it never shows you the full wound—it’s just part of him
Like O Brother, Where Art Thou? When the Coen’s get into music they do not mess around—this is another collaboration with T. Bone Burnett (who rose to fame as part of his connection to Dylan)
The “Freewheeling Bob Dylan” album cover is closely mimicked but of course the Llewyn Davis is closest to Dave Van Ronk
It’s not an easy film and not meant to be. Our titular character can be a tough hang—– largely plotless— and in many ways it’s one long punch in the face to Llewyn (or like a Kafkaesque nightmare) he constantly makes the wrong decision but he’s surely not overly sympathetic (asks his friend for money for abortion for the girl he’s sleeping with who happens to be that same friend’s girlfriend) and isn’t pitied. He heckles that woman, is rude to the Troy character asks him if he plugs himself in somewhere—haha
It’s a Coen film- which means dialogue and phrases are repeated— this doesn’t help the Mulligan character—she just swears at him—I wish she had a bit more. She doesn’t need to just swear- Carey Mulligan is so good she can just give him a look
He’s an aimless Seaman—much like The Master– sleeping on couches– lost
Quite a scene to have Isaac with Adam Driver (two young talents) with Timberlake
Llewyn is so salty—makes mistakes- takes $200 instead of getting royalties—he’s surviving, jaded, The lighting in the dining oasis over the highway on the way to Chicago is breathtaking
It is far-reaching and philosophical—bathroom wall says “what are you doing?”—he abandons the cat—the entire Cat (Ulysses)—the second Coen brothers film based (somewhat) on Homer’s work with O, Brother—we have the “incredible journey” poster—cat as metaphor
The scene where Llewyn doesn’t choose to get off at Akron is a tough one—hits the cat
Isaac is absolutely masterful- the best performance of 2013—heavy eyes—“I’m tired”. “I thought I needed a night’s sleep but it’s more than that”- tragic. He’s quick to give up. And Isaac is one hell of a performer—the film, and performances doesn’t work without both this level of a musician and actor.
The film is one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen- it wallops you
Colors we have muted greens, browns, grays and blues