GRADE: 5 out of 5
Thirteen years ago the Coen brothers released O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a literal odyssey of Americana that featured bluegrass as a main character right alongside George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson. They do much the same with the latest feature Inside Llewyn Davis, which operates as spiritual successor to O Brother, this time focusing on a more introspective tale, as the title would imply, set against the backdrop of the 1960s folk scene. With the Coen brothers’ reliably droll direction, a patently talented cast, and the musical guidance, once again, of T. Bone Burnett, Inside Llewyn Davis stands as singular cinematic love letter to a past musical era.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS follows a week in the life of a young folk singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. LLEWYN DAVIS (OSCAR ISAAC) is at a crossroads. Guitar in tow, huddled against the unforgiving New York winter, he is struggling to make it as a musician against seemingly insurmountable obstacles—some of them of his own making. Living at the mercy of both friends and strangers, scaring up what work he can find, Llewyn’s misadventures take him from the baskethouses of the Village to an empty Chicago club—on an odyssey to audition for a music mogul —and back again.
The film follows Llewyn Davis, a roving folk singer who, usually through no fault but his own, simply cannot find his footing in the world. As such there isn’t much of a straightforward story here, but a series of moments that, when orchestrated together, sound a vivid impression of a rough and itinerant life. We see Llewyn struggle with an ex-girlfriend who may be pregnant with his child. We see Llewyn struggle with his manager who can’t sell his records. We see Llewyn struggle to find a place to rest his head for the night… all of this during the indifferent frigidity of a New York winter. In true Coens fashion, Inside Llewyn Davis quarries the levity out of these predicaments, and does so primarily through the use of music.
What keeps Llewyn grounded is his guitar, which can be seen slung around his back whenever he travels from one couch to another. Despite the man’s profound talent as a musician, his career remains stagnant. We watch him as he becomes increasingly disillusioned, but he never gives up. He exhibits as much ambivalence as he does devotion, and Oscar Isaac deftly conveys this tenuous balance. Not only does Isaac effortlessly display superior musical chops, but he also manages to make the titular bastard a likeable one. Llewyn doesn’t immediately ingratiate himself toward anyone and often comes across as a bit of an asshole, but it’s understandable. We’re watching a man who has experienced loss, one who occasionally takes his pain out on those who love him, but Isaac imbues the character with an affability and self-awareness that all but absolves his downfalls.
We receive these glimpses into Llewyn through his interactions with others, and the Coens have assembled an eccentric procession of characters that, despite their limited screen time, all make distinct impressions on the protagonist as well as the film. Carey Mulligan is electric as Jean, whose painful past with Llewyn perpetuates the hostility of their relationship. Jean’s vitriol, however, stems from a well of affection, and it’s both beautiful and heartbreaking to watch Isaac and Mulligan create this damaged connection. Justin Timberlake does well as Jean’s earnest, straight-laced boyfriend, Llewyn’s negation, and it’s great to see John Goodman under the Coens’ direction again, this time as a cantankerous old timer with a dislike for folk music. I have to spotlight Stark Sands as an army man whose angelic singing voice and comical drawl contrast perfectly with Isaac’s deadpan presence.
The soundtrack is exceptional. I’d go so far as to say that legendary music producer T. Bone Burnett’s work here surpasses that of O Brother, though much of that depends on my own musical preference. Many of the songs were performed live in the film, which aids in the immersion and immediacy of these characters’ emotions, but the recordings are equally effective. There’s a great selection here from The Punch Brothers to Bob Dylan to Dave Van Ronk, whose life served as an inspiration for the film. The forlorn “Five Hundred Miles” and goofy “Please Mr. Kennedy” are definite highlights, but this really is Llewyn’s songs that make this record. From “The Death of Queen Jane” to “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, Isaac’s voice carries all the weight of a wayward soul, and his duet with Marcus Mumford on “Fare Thee Well” serves as a perfect anthem for the film, filled with images of regret, bygone relationships and a yearning for freedom.
How the Coen brothers manage to remain as sharp as ever on their sixteenth outing is astounding to me. Their work on Inside Llewyn Davis is masterful. You can sense their fondness of this era through the attention to detail found in every scene, from the smokers in the shadowy audience of the Gaslight Café to Llewyn’s sister’s suburban New York home. Their use of setting is indelible, and a great deal of praise has to go to Bruno Delbonnel’s saturated, wintry cinematography as well as the topnotch art direction and costume design. The world featured here, temporally reminiscent of A Serious Man, feels at once surreal and mundane, distinct and lived in. It’s these qualities that put the Coen brothers in a genre all their own.
Inside Llewyn Davis, down to its very structure, is a tale about the cyclical nature of life. Llewyn himself says of a particular song in his set, “It’s not new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song.” These songs lyrically converge the past, present, and future. Their choruses recur like Llewyn’s past regrets and they resonate with the same poignancy. The film itself is a folk song, and while the journey Llewyn embarks upon may ultimately result in a familiar stasis, the journey still matters. There’s something inherently absurd about all of this, but it’s this absurdity that the Coens skillfully tease out and transform into something that meaningfully reflects the weirdness of life.