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AFI Fest Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

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Inside Llewyn Davis plays out like a prayer sung in the freezing dark of night to a bright, warm future morning to come. It is the story of a man left out in the cold with only his guitar and his songs. The Coens create a tender composition about the pure integrity of art in a world of financial obligation and compromised aspirations.

Llewyn Davis drifts though the harsh winds without a winter coat, struggling to achieve some amount of success to appease his basic needs. This richly painted portrait of a folk singer who exists a place apart from fireplaces and family meals is as deeply felt as it is understated. There is a certain magic to the world Inside Llewyn Davis. That magic that leaps out in folk songs and dances in the clubs and cafes of Greenwich Village 1961. That magic was bubbling through the oppressive 1950's administrations. That magic rode on the voices of poets and beat in the hearts of the hard working man with his broken back and broken dreams. That magic traveled steadily across America with the railroads, from sea to shining sea. And Llewyn Davis is a stifled disciple of that magic, striving for a future on his own terms.

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Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver in Joel and Ethan Coen's
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Photo Credit: Alison Rosa. ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC

Everything in life is a choice. However, the infinite, unforeseen, uncontrollable factors that exist everywhere can make something of a person. Becoming an artist is not a choice. Existing on the fringe of society is often beat into you by life. There is, of course, the option for every artist to strangle those creative impulses, ignore those rebellious instincts, to defeat their own creativity and conform to a more traditional life. To trade in their guitar for a suit. Even within the art form there are always opportunities to dishonor their principles and give in to system of self-sacrificing rewards. Though the true artists knows that what they are doing is sacred. The true artist knows that to sacrifice yourself for success is an exercise in futility and a shortcut to nothing. Llewyn Davis knows in his bones that what he is striving for, starving for, freezing for is something special. Some perfect laughter. Some sacred love. Some uncompromised golden dream that exists every time he plays a song.

The Coen Brothers prove once again why they are two of the greatest treasures in modern cinema. They are able to take big, sprawling concepts and compress them and express them in succinct, intimate setting. By some miracle, they have captured the spirit of folk music, the spirit of America, the spirit of an entire generation and made it palatable for mass consumption. This unique film feels accessible, just as 60's folk music did. There is a certain breezy quality to folk music. It floats in the air like fog breaking, dissipating in the dawn. It has the ability to lift the souls of those who truly hear it and feel it and believe in it. It is a celebration fathered by a profoundly internal agony. It comes from the coalmines and the railroads and the steel mills that built this country. It comes from the virtue of cowboys and the pains of mothers. It comes from the death in foreign wars and depression in fiscal peril. Folk songs observe and absorb all the beaten-down lives and loves, all the smothered voices and projects them to the sky, where they soar with doves. The Coens captured all of that rich history and complex sincerity and turned it into a beautiful film.

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Oscar Isaac in Joel and Ethan Coen's INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC

We are given a privileged peek into part of a journey, a cross-section of American history and a love letter to the days that define an entire life. While the setting and circumstances of Inside Llewyn Davis are specific, the themes are universal. Every twenty-something has a time of questioning, refocusing, searching. There is an astrological explanation known as the Saturn return. The "return" refers the planet of Saturn returning to the same position in orbit as the time of a person's birth. The years leading up to the return are years of great challenge and difficulty. Regardless of a belief in astrology, there is no denying this transitional period in a person's late twenties. Llewyn Davis surrenders himself to the elements, and is at the mercy of the universe. It is not success that makes a person; it is the days spent toiling with no clear direction. The days when the weather is against you and you have no place to call home... The days of wondering and wandering, not sure of your next move or your next meal... Those hungry, cold days that beat all the pretention out of art. Those are the days that define a human being. And those are the days that define Llewyn Davis.