Originally published at CinemaBeach.
There are tragic realities to those pursuing music as a career choice. While a small chunk succeeds, there are those that toil in struggle the entire time. This wouldn’t seem apparent in most films, but then again Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t most filmmakers. Their melancholy stories chronicling American culture through the decades are full of humor, absurdity, and a sense of punishment. Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, has all of these elements in spades, and with music collaboration from T. Bone Burnett, this tale of the 60’s folk scene is full of catchy songs and the most egotistical loser of the year. That is to say that it is the Coen Brothers operating at their best.
The loser in question is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), whose music partner has died and his life revolves around sleeping on friends’ couches and driving hours for managers to reject him. His life is Murphy’s Law in motion and only the music can center him. There isn’t exactly a narrative to the events in his story, but more a collection of moments of strange meetings while being in possession of a cat. In an era before Bob Dylan popularized the genre, Llewyn has trouble getting anyone to respect him as a performer and he simultaneously feels bitter towards them.
The one magical element is that despite the dour subject, there is an odd sense of joy that comes with everything. There are performances with vivacious harmonies that fade into authenticity. There is a sense of passion that helps the story progress in ways similar to Robert Altman’s Nashville. This is a film that lovingly pays tribute to those who struggle without using optimism and dishonesty. The result feels refreshingly candid and set to the backdrop of folk song covers sung by people like Justin Timberlake and Stark Sands, the kitschy vibes make way for deeper meaning. There is meticulousness to each song choice and it almost seems to comment on the emotional moment in the film. When Oscar Isaac sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the start of the film, the references to death and graves could be insight into his grief over his fallen partner.
While the film is about struggle for respect in a career, it could also be about grief of a lost loved one. There are many that perceive Llewyn’s partner as some kind of joke and even when he isn’t mentioned, Llewyn’s problematic life almost seems to be because of where his mind is at. We never get a sense of his actual thoughts in any way except through encrypted performances. He is an introverted griever and struggling to make it alone in the world carries the protagonist to strange places. By the end, he doesn’t have all of the answers, but he does have a sense of self through his music. He may never be as big as his friends who perform at the same basket houses, but he will still be playing if not just for his sanity.
It helps that Oscar Isaac turns in an amazing performance. He carries the film almost with a dazed look on his face and disheveled curly hair as he trudges through subways and snowy streets. Much like the best of the Coen Brothers, Isaac makes Llewyn into a highly nuanced character who may be a little selfish, but isn’t without his clumsy charm. By doing this, Isaac creates one of the most effective portrayals of a musician this year who can take criticism and bottle it inside. He seems brave in his failure which when set alongside the cold, hazy cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel almost seems desolate.
Much like the Coen Brothers’ last most notable collaboration with T. Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the music serves as the glue. To majority of audiences entering the film, the covers of old Dave Van Ronk (whom the film was loosely based on) tracks will sound new and lively. The film does an effective job in not only creating a necessity for the songs, but also features performers who know how to sing and play instruments. It would seem impossible for the comical effect of notable highlight “Please Mr. Kennedy” to work entirely without the enthusiastic Timberlake or the deep thud of Adam Driver’s backing vocals. There isn’t a necessity to like folk music to admire the effort of the soundtrack, as there are still humorous nuances in the clothing choices and performance tics.
There is humor even in the serious moments, and that may be where the film’s strongest clarity comes from. While the story does little to make a supporting character dominant, it does allow each performer to have their shine. John Goodman as a folk artist-hating road trip companion may have the best lines in the film and reflect the ultimate struggle for Llewyn as a respectable artist. Even Carey Mulligan, whose skin almost seems as cold as the scenery, has a sense of disdain towards him, though for more personal reasons. The film dives into some issues that in lesser hands would ruin the comedic tone. Still, Mulligan’s promiscuity may have serious consequences, but her uptight cynicism is delightful and the perfect antithesis to Llewyn’s dreams. Of the supporting characters, the cat steals the show not only in how he almost seems to control the story by disappearing for most of the film, but also in potential symbolism and how he influences everyone in the story.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a wonderfully crafted look into the folk scene and a loving letter to performers. It may bookend with the protagonist lying in the snow defeated, but the weight around it features plenty of honesty and joy that feels more rewarding than a happy ending. Oscar Isaac delivers a stellar performance that may be a little depressing, but always humanistic. The film manages to look cold while feeling like the liveliest music film of the year. It demands attention with captivating music covers and even better singer-actors. The journey may not make sense, but it feels like the best understanding of a musician’s life as a result.