What previous Coens ventures to compare Inside Llewyn Davis to? It has the heart of True Grit, the eccentricity of Lebowski and the themes of A Serious Man. It shows the exquisite feel for its period that Miller’s Crossing demonstrated. It shares the ability to craft worlds through music with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and even revisits its classical inspirations. There is never a doubt that you are watching a Coen Brothers production, and that is both the strongest and weakest factor of this film.
We fade in on a darkened, smoky Greenwich Village bar in 1962, in the months before the emergence of Dylan, as folk singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) gives a powerful performance of two songs, the second more emotional for him as he used to perform it with his former singing partner, now deceased. After giving this career-high performance, he is accosted by a faceless stranger, the evil twin of Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski, and given a fierce, seemingly unprovoked beating. Llewyn awakes – after the beating? before it? never? – in an Upper East Side apartment of well-off intellectual friends, the Gorfeins. Broke, he has become a couch-surfing bum, bouncing between friends’ pads and using up favours across New York.
Leaving the Gorfeins’ apartment, he inadvertently lets their cat out – the ginger feline’s escape triggers much of the drama to come, while serving as a metaphor for Llewyn’s own journey of introspection.
Like many of the Coens’ leads (the brothers once again co-write here), Llewyn’s story flits him through interactions with assorted friends and oddballs. His once-off lover Jean (Carey Mulligan), who is married to folk singer Jim (Justin Timberlake), is pregnant and the sire is up for debate. Jim and Jean team up with an on-leave folk-singing soldier to form a Peter, Paul & Mary-esque trio, sparking further jealousy for the shiftless Llewyn. His stereotypically Jewish agent fobs off responsibility for not promoting his records because he doesn’t know how to sell him as a solo act. On a road trip to Chicago he finds himself in the car of a belligerent, Mephistophelean rockabilly veteran played by John Goodman. Each encounter propels Llewyn into further uncertainty, as his failing passion becomes a torment to him, and rekindling it appears a doomed salvation.
The Coens have done an immaculate job in recreating the look and feel of this epicentre of the folk revival – shooting in a retro-converted Washington Square helps – and Amélie D.P. Bruno Delbonnel finds tremendous light and colour in wintry Manhattan. Apartments are accessed by corridors so narrow they might lead to Wonderland, gently reminding us of the poverty that many of these performers experienced.
Isaac, most familiar to audiences as Standard in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, gives a superb turn as Llewyn, bringing to life a character left bitter by repeated set-backs, but burning within with injured passion. When he plays his music, the film halts to let him, and it is hard not to get carried away by his soulful performances. Mulligan and Timberlake play strong support, although Coen regular John Goodman once again steals many of the best scenes.
But this is all about the songs. Collaborating again with T Bone Burnett, who created the superb score for O Brother, the Coens use an array of folk tracks from the period to fill their film – Timberlake and Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons aided Burnett with the compositions, and the results sing for themselves. The stand-out track, Inside Llewyn Davis’ ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ so to speak, is a jaunty, silly protest song, ‘Please, Mr. Kennedy’, performed by Isaac and Timberlake with some wonderful vocal contributions by Adam Driver of Girls fame.
Deeply nostalgic and sympathetic, Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coens working on a far more intimate scale than many of their recent ventures. Melancholy yet hopeful, it never loses sight of its protagonist’s dreams, even as he loses sight of them himself. The conclusion stumbles into not-entirely-successful realms of meta storytelling, and one point is hammered home all too hard with a clumsy literary reference, but Llewyn’s odyssey is still a wonderful and affecting ride.
As a period film it could perhaps look better, but it could not feel better. A new folk revival is on the horizon…
(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)