The fictional Llewyn Davis, a struggling early-’60s folk singer eager to achieve success gigging in New York City’s halo’d Greenwich Village, may have developed his musical and vocal talents. However, his Saturnine self-mastery skills are utterly abysmal.
To watch Inside Llewyn Davis, written and directed by Joel Cohen and Ethan Coen, is like being dunked into a musical epoch when acoustic guitar strums were typically the only instrumental accompaniment in a performance and when every folk song sort of sounded the same.
Our unwitting guide through this period, atmospherically rendered by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, is Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) himself, whose wayward lifestyle, which includes sleeping on friends’ and even strangers’ couches, starkly contrasts with his belief in his musical talent.
Llewyn, you see, comes with baggage that extends far beyond the guitar he shleps around. He was part of a singing duo, up until the time his partner committed suicide. He has indiscriminately slept around and gotten girls pregnant, possibly including vocalist Jean (Carey Mulligan), who’s married to musician and fellow-folkie Jim (Justin Timberlake). She, in unfiltered fashion, tells Llewyn: “Everything you touch turns to s ** t.”
Most of all, Llewyn is incapable of organizing himself, which is number one on the Saturn archetype’s how-to-live check list. He’s constantly without cash, which is the planetary task master’s survival mechanism. Despite his earnestness, he exudes a pervasive Saturnine melancholy and self-righteousness which often detours into an unlikable pomposity.
Not even an older academic husband and wife, whose son was Llewyn’s musical partner, are safe from his verbal lacerations. And his inability to look after the couple’s prized ginger-striped cat is an apt metaphor for this folkie’s dilemma. The fleet-footed feline keeps eluding his sitter’s grasp, just as success keeps slipping through Llewyn’s fingers during an odyssey that includes meeting a bunch of riveting characters (John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Stark Sands and Adam Driver).
Although Inside Llewyn Davis, which is named for Llewyn’s debut record album, is a cautionary tale about what happens when talented people don’t take control over their day-to-day activities, the Coens make a strong case for fate and Saturn-ruled timing. Although Llewyn doesn’t realize it yet, his chances of making his mark are diminishing by the minute. Folk music, as he knows it, is about to be blown away by a Minnesotan named Bob Dylan who’ll reinvent the entire folk-music genre.
Associated with tradition and security, Saturn is about remaining in one’s comfort zone. Llewyn, like many of the real-life folkies of that era, including Dave Van Ronk, is no innovator, and he pays dearly. Is Llewyn nothing more than a musical failure, after having, in his mind, given it his all? And what about the rest of us? When viewed in this light, Inside Llewyn Davis, despite its music-soothing veneer, is a brutal, cutting work.
Astrology Film Rating: ♄ (Saturn)