Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Release Date: January 10th, 2014 (US); January 24th, 2014 (UK)
Genre: Drama; Music
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake
The bumbling Llewyn Davis sits opposite Bud Grossman, a music mogul the folk singer has literally gone lengths to meet. Grossman, perhaps out of good grace rather than expectation, whispers he wants to hear something from “Inside Llewyn Davis”. You can see the toil in Llewyn’s guitar strumming hands, the plight in his aching voice and the desperation in his knowing eyes. Knowing, because he’s seen failure before. Always. It’s a powerful moment in a bleakly rich tale about a music churner on the periphery of a scene ready to erupt. Although Llewyn is often the source of his own downfall and despite his tendency to be a bit of an asshole, you campaign dearly for him. Out of sympathy? Sure. But also because Oscar Isaac plays the bedraggled artist to an absolute tee. And if not that, then it’s the harmonious melodies and captivating words emanating from Llewyn’s mouth that seal your approval. The Coen’s are back, and Inside Llewyn Davis is a drowsy doozy.
It’s 1961. Layered with frost and shrouded in the icy breath of its residents, New York’s Greenwich Village is a hotbed for folk music. Llewyn Davis is part of the emerging scene; at least he aspires to be, but his newest album hasn’t sold and his partner-in-song recently committed suicide. Lower on luck than money — and he’s pretty damn tight on both — Llewyn plays intermittently at the Gaslight Cafe before scrounging a stranger’s couch for the night. When we first meet him, the folk singer laments lyrics that ring true alongside his sombre existence (“Hang me, oh hang me”). Soon after Llewyn finds himself beat up in a dank and saturated alleyway, a physical and painful embodiment of his musical struggles.
And it gets worse before it gets worse again. His friends, perhaps the only ones, are moderately successful and on the rise. John (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) are a singing duo, often Llewyn’s haven both financially and in shelter. Only now Jean is pregnant and unsure of the father, effectively severing any amiable ties between herself and the unfortunate Llewyn. The Gorfien’s also boast a couch familiar to Llewyn. This very mundane-yet-collapsing existence is exceedingly prevalent for the Welsh-named man. It’s a Coen trademark, harking back to one of their recent outings, A Serious Man. Llewyn and Larry (the serious man) are dealt similar misfortunes in life — it wouldn’t come as a total surprise to discover the pair are related, they certainly share a kindred luckless spirit. Just like in A Serious Man, arguably even more so, you find yourself hampering alongside the lead fortune-insulator in an attempt to lighten the load.
Oscar Isaac is outstanding in the lead role. His portrayal of Llewyn Davis does not boast charisma, rather that trait flares from everyone else around him. Instead he is controlled, restrained, almost as if the next bout of bad news is a given at any moment. His inhibitions outside performing — Llewyn’s depth is less than the milk bowl he feeds his temporary cat with — are the reason for the folk singer’s lack of progression (“not a star”; “there’s no money there”). Isaac’s expertly lacking in grandiose performance is probably the reason he was wrongly snubbed by the Academy, when in reality this is certainly one of the best performances of the year.
It’s his lack of success that bolsters Llewyn’s admirability. Near the beginning of his torrid week, he mistakenly-yet-not-unexpectedly lets the Gorfien’s cat out. His subsequent adventures alongside the furry animal are telling, and often mirror Llewyn’s personal detriments. Suddenly, there arrives a point where you question Llewyn’s reasoning for still carrying the cat, but realise the answer is glaringly obvious: as it clambers on his chest in the underground, the cat represents Llewyn’s own conflicts. It’s his proverbial ‘chip on the shoulder’ if you like. Llewyn can’t seem to grasp the advancing folk culture, perhaps because his mind is cramped full of other problems which demand facilitating — he takes a fee rather than royalties on the comical song “Please Mr. Kennedy”, one that he detests but records at the mercy of instant cash. Often the cat escapes Llewyn’s person yet he always finds and reclaims it, indicating Llewyn’s unconscious inability to let go and develop his own self. The singer is hemmed in — not just by tight corridors — and seemingly the only means of escape is the sole entrance that takes him directly back to where he began.
In one of their heated debates, Llewyn labels Jean a “careerist” not realising the folk scene only offers success via the semi-corporate route she is traversing. “Please Mr. Kennedy” is an upbeat, topical space tune illustrating the rise of its vocalist, whereas Llewyn often finds his own passion in singing songs about death (“If I Had Wings”); songs that draw you in and sell your ears a piece of Llewyn’s heart, but songs that indiscriminately distance themselves from commercial flourishing. When Llewyn sings the film bursts into life, ironically a tantalising life that Llewyn himself can’t live, one he only provide. Another Coen collaboration with T-Bone Burnett sizzles up a wonderfully echoing and at times heart-wrenching soundtrack, one that hums alongside a smoky moodiness. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the benchmark, and Inside Llewyn Davis just about reaches it.
Oscar Isaac’s tremendous rendition aside, the film is bolstered by an array of eccentric, humorous and penchant performances. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan exude a genuine chemistry, one that is sort of awkward in the wake of Llewyn, just as it should be. Coen stalwart John Goodman is back and funnier than ever (“You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge!”) as a loudmouth, jazz musician who derides folk music. Military man by day folk artist by night, Stark Sands provides an early measure of off-beat hilarity at the beginning of Llewyn’s dourness, a comical thread that is never lost on the Coen’s and therefore one that often successfully prevails over the textured malaise.
From the second Llewyn Davis enters the viewer’s presence to the moment the viewer’s presence leaves the cinema, you find it exceedingly difficult to believe in his music success story. It’s not that you don’t want too, far from it. Rather, the Coen brothers have meticulously mechanised an early 1960s folk scene that blends the unfortunate with a frustration, an atmosphere Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn Davis gloomily basks in.
At the end of a tediously long journey that eventually renders itself pointless, Llewyn’s questioning of a beat poet’s escapades is met with a staunch, “Long story”. In a way it’s fitting because that long story, encased in uncertainty, hapless luck, and banality, is Llewyn’s life in a nutshell.