Inside Llewyn Davis: A Serious Man in Greenwich Village

As preparation for the movie, I bought the CD soundtrack a few weeks before. This has proven to be a mistake, for I’d been listening to it so much that when I watched the film, I wasn’t surprised by the music at all. I consider that a loss. It would have been much better that I were mesmerized by that haunting voice of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) for the first time as I watched the movie.

Inside Llewyn Davis copy

Music is a major player in many Coen brothers movies, often used to comedic and acerbic effects. The whole odyssey in O Brothers Where Art Thou (2000) comes to mind readily, or Jefferson Airplane in A Serious Man (2009) where ‘Somebody to Love’ reinvents itself, or even in True Grit‘s (2010) ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ as we see the one-arm Mattie Ross riding into the sunset.

But in Inside Llewyn Davis, music is no laughing matter. Llewyn is the serious man here, a folksinger down on his luck. T. Bone Burnett has crafted an impressive music production. It should be noted too that Marcus Mumford, lead singer of Mumford and Sons and husband of Carey Mulligan, is also involved in the song arrangement and singing, in particular, the part of Llewyn’s duo partner Mike in ‘Fare Thee Well’.

The setting is New York City’s Greenwich Village, 1961. Llewyn is a folk music purist, an idealist. All he wants is a gig to kick off as a solo performer. The backstory is that his singing duo partner had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. The record he has produced as a soloist isn’t selling. It’s cold in NYC, Llewyn is homeless and coatless. Maybe it’s arrogance coming from being a music purist that makes him callous and abrasive, even to fellow folk singers, or maybe he needs to have that aloof hardness as an armour to sustain the slings and arrows life hurls his way.

O, if only Llewyn’s personality were as charismatic as his voice, he probably would have done better in life. Despite his musical talents, our protagonist, like a Shakespearean tragic hero, is trapped by his own character flaws and tripped by no small amount of fate, he slips slides into the wayside. Sadly, that’s exactly where he lands at the end of the movie.

He has friends and acquaintances, but there’s not much that they can do to help. He has already made the best use of their couches, and some of their wives. The latest to get pregnant is Jean, played against type by the sweet Carey Mulligan, all wrapped up in anger, understandably so, for her friend Llewyn is more concerned about a lost cat than her upcoming abortion. Jean has a very limited vocabulary to express herself except the overused expletive. Not a pleasant role to play I’m sure. Her character could have been written with a bit more depth.

Oscar Issac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan copy 2

Jean and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) are also folk singers but ‘careerists’ according to Llewyn. They would one day concede to life in the suburb, settle down and have kids. ‘Is that so bad?’ Jean asks Llewyn. The answer is obvious. Llewyn is definitely not going down that path.

Talented folk singers converge at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village during the 1960’s. Why some succeed and others don’t, the Coen brothers seem not so much to offer rational explanations than to depict the misfortunes of one. In that dim, brick-walled and smoke-filled Café, we hear some fantastic singing. We hear Jim, Jean and their friend Troy (Stark Sands) perform ‘Five Hundred Miles’, evoking Peter, Paul and Mary. At one point, to an oblivious Llewyn, we see the silhouette of what looks like Bob Dylan and hear his voice singing ‘Farewell’.

Cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel) sets the mood from the opening scene. In that basement Café, we see the place dimly lit with spotlight on Llewyn’s face, as his ‘Hang Me, O Hang Me’ captivates us right away. We follow him later as he steps outside to a pitch-dark alley where he meets his nemesis. Even during the day, we see him walk on wind-swept streets under dull, grey sky. The overall bleakness can be soothed only when Llewyn picks up his guitar and sing. His voice seems to be able to neutralize any outrageous fortune.

Llewyn takes a surreal road trip to Chicago to try his luck with a club owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, a double for Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman?) He is stuck in the car with the old and sardonic Roland Turner (John Goodman) who wraps up his opinion in one short line: “Folk singer? I thought you said you were a musician.” If the trip seems absurd, it could well be the exact impression the directors intend. We follow one week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a week of failed attempts, gloomy encounters, and bleak prospects. The only light is the voice.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


Related Reviews on Ripple Effects:

A Serious Man (2009)

True Grit (2010)


A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: Who can know it?”  Jeremiah 17: 9, The King James Bible

I’m delving into Flannery O’Connor like mad, looking for violence. It all started with my stumbling upon this YouTube clip of Father Robert Barron’s movie review of Coen Brothers’ acclaimed movie “Fargo.”

I was bemused to hear him compare Joel and Ethan Coen’s films to Flannery O’Connor’s stories, for in them we can find violence juxtaposed closely with humor. It has been years since I read O’Connor’s stories. After watching “Fargo” again the other night, I thought, I must read more of Flannery O’Connor, this time in a different light. I want to experience how this is true. I’m curious to find out how and why a deeply religious female author would instil violence in her stories. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories is a good source for my purpose.

Within the ten stories in this collection, I’ve encountered shocking and disturbing scenes that if being shown in cinematic light today could match what’s on screen, not only physical violence, but malicious deceits, verbal abuse, nasty and mean motives leading to disturbing actions.

Here are some of the scenes: Leading the pack is “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, where a family of six from baby to Grandma is killed by an escaped convict The Misfit and his men. In “Good Country People”, a deceitful young man posing as a Bible salesman outsmarts a woman aiming to seduce him, overpowering her and robbing her prosthetic leg.

Or how about these scenes: A grandfather denies knowing his young grandson in the face of danger in an unfamiliar city in “The Artificial Nigger”. A stranger gaining the trust of an old woman and later marrying her deaf-mute daughter but ends up abandoning her and driving off with her mother’s car and money after the wedding in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”. Children setting off a wild-fire and endangering a home and its occupants out of revenge, jealousy, or plain malice in “A Circle in the Fire”. Almost all the stories depict human depravity in a shocking way, albeit intermingled with humor. But often, for me, the humor does not compensate for the disturbing and grotesque. From what I’ve read in this collection, O’Connor could well have written the movie “No Country for Old Men”, except she would have sprinkled with a dash of sardonic fun.

But why? If for anything but to show the depravity and the hypocrisy among supposedly ‘good country folks’, and by extension, all humanity, O’Connor is most successful. Like the choir boys turned savages in The Lord of the Flies, what we are is largely circumstantial, the author seems to point out. O’Connor is very bold and direct in conveying this message. She does not cover up the dark side of human nature but exposes it. By so doing, she points to the need for redemptive grace.

In “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, we see at the moment of imminent death, the grumpy Grandma looks at The Misfit in a new light, realizing that her existential predicament is not much different from the criminal’s. She says to The Misfit:

Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children! She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.

But her epiphany comes too late for herself.

The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.

While we see the murder of a seemingly innocent old woman, albeit hypocritical, O’Connor delivers the verdict of our human condition ironically by the words of The Misfit:

She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.

I find too, that violence in O’Connor’s stories are not gratuitous. It’s a situation, an action that comes as unexpected, and with that, O’Connor deftly tips the balance. These shocking acts usually serves to shatter the status quo of her characters, challenge their world view and convictions. O’Connor does not go about describing the grotesque in gory images, rather, in a matter-of-fact way. We only hear gun shots from afar when the other members of the family are killed. And for the Grandma, The Misfit “shot her three times through the chest.” These mere seven words send out the eerie and shocking effect of cold-blooded murder without having to dwell on the explicit.

Likewise, in “A Circle in the Fire”, it’s a few sardonic words from the disgruntled kid Powell that send chill down our spine as he lights up a match to set fire to the dry wooded area outside Mrs. Cope’s farm home:

Do you know what I would do with this place if I had the chance?… I’d build a big parking lot on it…

Powell told his two companions. Seeing this, the slow-witted daughter of Mrs. Cope’s runs home excited, shouting:

Mama, Mama, they’re going to build a parking lot here!

Yes, a likely scene and dialogue from a Coen Brothers movie.

But it is O’Connor’s own words that is most revealing in pointing out the reasons behind the violence:

In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.  Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.

And violence is never an end in itself:

We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is bad thing and meant to be an end in itself.  With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself.  It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially…

In reading (and movie watching, for that matter) we need to find and catch that glimpse of grace. With this, O’Connor had also set a standard for a good screenplay:

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.

It is the “intrusion of grace” that the violent act is set up for. Without the Grandma’s final epiphany and the gesture of reaching out to The Misfit, O’Connor had said, “I would have no story.”

The writer sure knew a bit about the human heart.


True Grit: A Cool Summer Read and Movie

14 year-old Mattie Ross has just got herself a place on my short list of favorite fictional heroines, alongside Elizabeth Bennet. Come to think of it, if Jane Austen were to write a Western novel, I’m sure she’d have created a character like Mattie Ross, determined, principled, curious, fearlessly independent, her heart sincere and her morals strong.


Kudos must go to author Charles Portis, who has described with succinct and flowing prose the captivating adventure of Mattie Ross. It’s a hero’s journey, but Mattie is no reluctant heroine. No more than a child, she hires the meanest of them all, Marshal Rooster Cogburn in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and goes with him, against his strong objection, to hunt down Tom Chaney, the killer of her father.

Portis’s storytelling is alluring and comedic, capturing my attention from the opening lines. The vision of 14 year-old Mattie is clear and crisp. Reminiscing as an adult now, her voice is vivid and affective. I’m won over soon by her articulate dealing in the adult world, protecting her own interest and yet still pouring out the heart of a child. Portis’s description is lucid, at times eloquent, and at times, deadpan humorous. His characters come alive with their vernacular dialogues of the American South after the Civil War. Many of the pages are script-ready for their cinematic effects.

I admit this is my first Western novel if my memory serves me correctly. My other one in the Western genre is Elmore Leonard’s short story “3:10 to Yuma” which I read after watching the movie. Here the reason is similar. I waited in a long line of holds from the public library for this book because of the fine movie adaptation I’d seen. The Coen brothers’ soulful rendition of True Grit (2010) got me curious… I just wonder how much of the movie is their creation, and how much is the author’s own.

I’m totally surprised to learn from reading the novel that the remake of “True Grit” is mostly a faithful adaptation of Portis’s novel. Not that I’m concerned it needs be accurately transposed, for I don’t expect movies to go the fidelity route anymore. But that’s exactly my surprise, that the Coen brothers have stayed with the plot and character development, and derived their scene sequences almost to the dot, unlike the 1969 John Wayne flick, which has changed the ending totally.

Not only that, under Joel and Ethan Coen’s direction, the movie is imbued with soul and heart. The Biblical quotes and allusions in Portis’s novel are eloquently woven into the narration and music of the film, something that’s missing in the 1969 version. The leitmotif of “Leaning On the Everlasting Arm” is deadpan ironic in the ending, albeit instilling meaning throughout. Without their leaning on each other they would not have overpowered Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) and the bandits with whom he takes cover, and definitely would not have survived at the end.

In True Grit, characters make the movie. The film is spot-on in depicting the dynamics of the man-hunt trio, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), Federal Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). Hailee Steinfeld is a natural, and owns the role of tough and precocious Mattie, deservedly receiving a Best Actress Oscar nom at this year’s Academy Awards. At 13, Steinfeld beat out 15,000 other girls in the audition to get the role.  Just one year later, she has landed at the Oscars.

Portis’s intricate portrayal of the threesome in the novel is sensitively transposed visually on screen. The common goal in capturing a killer supersedes any rivalry between the two men in front of a 14 year-old girl, who has got both of them “pretty well figured”. One day when he has a sober minute to look back to his drunken, drifting life, Rooster would likely credit this episode of his journey with Mattie to capture the coward Tom Chaney as the most rewarding. The girl has gotten and drawn out the best of him.

First published in 1968, the book has since become a modern American classic. Some have compared it with Huckleberry Finn. But it has been neglected in subsequent years until the 2010 Coen brothers’ adaptation came out. It has garnered 10 Oscar noms earlier this year, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Now we see the fresh reprints by The Overlook Press, New York. Thanks to the movie, the once overlooked book is back in print and on the new and popular shelves in bookstores, even now months after the Oscars.

Ah yes… books and movies, still the best summer treats.

True Grit by Charles Portis, published by The Overlook Press, NY. 2010, with Afterword by Donna Tartt, 235 pages.

Book and Movie:

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Oscar Nominations 2011

Here are the ten movies you might like to watch before the 83rd Academy Awards on Feb. 27:

Best Picture Nominees:

  • Black Swan
  • The Fighter
  • Inception
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • The King’s Speech
  • 127 Hours
  • The Social Network
  • Toy Story 3
  • True Grit
  • Winter’s Bone

For a complete list of nominees and to watch the announcement from this morning in case you missed it at 5:30 am (PT) or 8:30 am (ET), CLICK HERE.

The nominations count are as follows: King’s Speech = 12, True Grit = 10, Social Network = 8, Inception = 8, The Fighter = 7, 127 Hours = 6

The King leads the pack.  A royal flush they say, hope that’s the hand on Oscar night.  Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, and director Tom Hooper all get nods. Other categories include Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Screenplay.  To read my review of The King’s Speech, CLICK HERE.

The surprise here is True Grit.  The Coen brothers’ film got snubbed at the Golden Globes and comes back with a vengeance.  Two years in a row they get the nod for Best Picture, after last year’s A Serious Man (my review here).   True Grit is a remake of the 1969 Western for which John Wayne got his Oscar.  Here we have a distinct Coen style film with smart dialogues and great acting.  “Nothing is free except the grace of God,” the beginning voice-over says, matched with the tune of the old hymn ‘Leaning on the Ever Lasting Arms’… I was amused to see how these two notions echo at the end of the film. At 13, Hailee Steinfeld beat out 15,000 other girls in the audition to get the role of tough and articulate Mattie Ross, seeking justice for her daddy’s death.  Now one year later, she has landed at the Oscars. Amazing. Also, Jeff Bridges gets the nom again, after snatching the Best Actor Oscar from Colin Firth last year.  It’s interesting to note that, while Colin Firth can act with half a voice, Jeff Bridges here shows us he can act with just one eye.

I’m excited to see Mike Leigh finally getting recognition for his poignant original screenplay for Another Year.  Unfortunately, the film does not get any more Oscar nods.  Veteran British actors Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, and Lesley Manville give a performance of deep resonance.  Lesley Manville is no less deserving than anyone on the list of Best Actress nominees.  This is one of the most neglected movies of 2010.  I saw it at the Calgary Film Festivals last year.  I know some cities are just showing it now. Don’t miss it.  CLICK HERE to read my review.

Toy Story 3.  The animated feature that gets into the major league, following the only two other animations ever to be nominated in a Best Motion Picture category, Up (2009) and Beauty and the Beast (1991).  The theme of growing up and parting with your beloved and familiar finds its way into a touching animation that may well appeal to parents more than kids.  The idea of a child leaving home for college has been used in several movies in recent years, most notably, The Blind Side (2009) and The Kids Are All Right (2010).  I’ve watched all of this year’s ten Best Picture nominees. But, don’t laugh, Toy Story 3 was the only time I’d shed a few tears.

For Best Documentary Feature, I’m glad to see our notorious graffiti artist Banksy’s film Exit Through the Gift Shop has not evaded the Academy.  To read my review CLICK HERE.

The Academy Awards will take place on Sunday, Feb. 27.  This time Anne Hathaway and James Franco (a Best Actor nominee himself for 127 Hours), the youngest of Oscar hosts, are set to offer a fresh new look.  Hathaway had proven her versatility dancing and singing with Hugh Jackman two Oscars ago, and Franco has been hailed as the new Renaissance Man…  Just hope they will live up to expectations.

A Serious Man (2009)

UPDATE:  A Serious Man has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in the coming 82nd Academy Awards, to be held March 7th, 2010.  Joel and Ethan Coen receive a nod for Best Original Screenplay.

Do we go to the movies to be entertained, or to search for meaning and answers about life? For those who frequent Ripple Effects, you probably can guess what my stance is. Yes, allow me to answer a question with a question… Why must the two be mutually exclusive?

I’m all intrigued about films that explore deep subjects and yet remain as comedies, or, dramedies, as the genre has evolved in recent years. A Serious Man is one such films, entertaining and yet hauntingly serious. But it’s not entertaining with a big splash of hilarity. It is a dark comedy, a film that makes you chuckle in a most poignant way. It’s the deadpan humor that strikes deep. The subject matter in A Serious Man deals with the inscrutable question: Why do bad things happen to good people? And, if we can’t find the answer to the why, then at least, how should we then live?

The film has been described as the most personal of Joel and Ethan Coen’s works; others see it as the most Jewish they’ve done, or even somewhat autobiographical. The setting is 1967 Minnesota, where the Coen brothers grew up.

A Serious Man has won the 2009 Independent Spirit’s Robert Altman Award, and accolades for its screenplay.  It’s one of the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Films of 2009. Michael Stuhlbarg’s excellent performance receives a 2010 Golden Globe nom for Best Actor, Musical or Comedy.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a college physics professor, a conscientious man who just tries to live his life minding his own business, trying to do what is right.  Yet, it’s trouble he finds everywhere he turns. His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) is divorcing him for their mutual friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); his daughter Sarah (Jessica Mcmanus) is stealing from him to do a nose job; his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) is taking drugs even as he prepares for his bar mitzvah; his unstable brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is staying uninvited in his house and has no intention to leave any time soon.  On the career front, his student Clive (David Kang) is bribing him for a passing grade; his tenure committee is making decision on his future while an anonymous letter is circulating, defaming him. At the same time, his chest x-ray result is back, and, an ominous tornado is making its way to his son’s school. I’m exhausted just to keep up. Can anyone explain why Larry is having so many problems while he is only trying to be a mensch, or, a serious man?

Larry goes searching for answers from three rabbis. While the first two cannot give him a satisfactory answer, the third, the most senior, is too busy to see him. Who then is left to help him through all his troubles?

Many critics equate Larry’s predicament with Job of the Bible, a righteous man facing incredulous torments. But Larry is no Job. He may attempt to be a righteous man, but he is not totally blameless. I feel the film may reflect the notion described in the book of Ecclesiastes even more:

… And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also.  Why then have I been so very wise?’ … this too is meaningless.

Ecclesiastes 2: 14 – 15

If we have no control over the bad things that happen to all, it’s only natural to question why we ought to be good then. If his wife runs away with another man, is it justified that Larry should lust for another woman? Since bad things will happen to the good and the bad alike, why bother being good? Do we act prudently because we expect positive consequences, or, do we act prudently because it is the right thing to do, period. And now, the moment of decision, the bribe…

A Serious Man throws at us more questions than answers, expectedly so, for who has all the answers? It is in such precarious situations that we look into our hearts and search ourselves. Instead of a challenge thrown at HaShem, God, I see the film as one that’s turned towards us: what would I have done?

~ ~ ~ Ripples