Inside Llewyn Davis
Couch surfing his way around Bohemian New York City in the early 60s might’ve begun as a creative adventure but by the time we meet the Coen brothers’ eponymous Llewyn Davis any inherent romanticism has worn as thin as his hopes, his patience, or the picked at fabric of his only jacket.The story of this Dylanesque character is a meandering melancholy meditation on the death of a dream which strikes its chosen chords heavily, its emotional impact lingering days after viewing.
Call me morose but Inside Llewyn Davis is the best film I’ve seen in amongst a group of very strong contenders so early in the year. The film differs a little from my other Coen brothers favourites which are notable for their whip-smart, highly quotable dialogue (The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) or for the perverse intersection of highly dramatic/dangerous events with intriguingly odd characters (Fargo, No Country For Old Men). Llewyn Davis proves comparatively restrained in terms of its levels of both narrative action and creative quipping. Not that the dialogue is anything less than ‘Coen-like’ but where Llewyn Davis excels is in its enveloping emotional tone. Anyone who has felt a dream slip through their fingers—whether through failed efforts or failure to even try—will recognise the sense of frustrated inevitability that pervades both the lead character and the film through which he walks. I have no doubt that had we been watching the Llewyn Davis of five years prior we’d have met a more optimistic and personable cat. Certainly his list of places to crash evinces someone who at least had a certain level of personal magnetism, but there’s nothing like poverty and ongoing disappointment to quell even the hottest of fires. That this entire story arc is apparent even when left unsaid is a great testament to Oscar Isaac’s exemplary performance. Not only is he a gifted musician—unlike many actors who display adequate musical talents in a given role (e.g. Carey Mulligan) he feels like he could actually have a musical career—but you can read so much of his history in his embattled physique and embittered expressions. Despite being downtrodden Llewyn’s decent (warm even) nature is still glimpsed: be it in his concern for various prominent animals* (attention cat lovers!) or in the way he deals with some challenging confrontations. It’s no overstatement to say that Isaac’s performance drives this film but he’s also backed by a slew of strong performances in support. The Coens obviously took note of the interestingly awkward chemistry Mulligan and Isaac produced as a distanced couple in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011) and put it to work here. Justin Timberlake once again shows his acting chops as fellow folk singer Jim, partner to Mullligan’s Jean, not to mention the memorable musical sequence he anchors with Isaac and Adam Driver.
There are many echos to the Coens’ previous work throughout this film and while most are cleverly woven in the inclusion of John Goodman in a role reminiscent of his one-eyed salesman Big Dan Teague in O Brother is perhaps the least successful element. While this On The Road-esque chapter—replete with Garrett ‘Dean Moriarty’ Hedlund driving them cross-country!—works as a stand alone, for me it is the one part of the story which doesn’t really knit well with the whole.
I didn’t take this film as a ‘musical’ per se but the music is both central and impressive. From intimate smoky scenes in 60s Greenwich Village folk clubs to candid performances in the houses of friends or relatives to the more produced setup of the recording studio the songs performed by Isaac, Timberlake and co. have a pleasingly (and genre appropriate) raw-edged timbre. The Coens and their cast create as real sense of immediacy in these musical sequences which draw you into rather than take you out of the film (often my experience with musicals). Much credit should also go to legendary producer/songwriter T Bone Burnett whose second Coen collaboration has turned out another killer soundtrack (he collaborated previously on O Brother earning him four Grammy Awards in 2002). It certainly didn’t harm the film’s feel of authenticity that Burnett played guitar in Bob Dylan’s touring band for the ’75/’76 ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’!
It remains to be seen where Inside Llewyn Davis will settle long term in critical (or personal) standing amongst the Coens’ diverse and hugely accomplished oeuvre but there is no denying that this is a quality film whose emotional exploration dives deep into your psyche. You’ll be hard pressed to find better dramatic viewing or a stronger central performance on screens any time soon.
* The sideline focus on animal welfare and pet ownership struck me as a very ‘now’ aspect of this film.
Rating: M Offensive language.