The Coens’ tragi-comic odyssey of broken dreams and bitter truths
Inside Llewyn Davis
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan & Justin Timberlake
Directed by Ethan & Joel Coen
R, 105 min.
“Hang me, oh, hang me,” sings Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) in the mesmerizing performance that opens filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coens’ ode to the New York’s Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s. Llewyn (pronounced Loo-en) doesn’t just sing the song, he inhabits it, picking his guitar and spinning its tale of a weary traveler defeated by his own misdeeds, finally surrendering to the noose and the cold, cold ground.
The bleak song sets the stage for the story that’s about to unfold—like a folk song—as we spend a week in the life of Llewyn, a young journeyman singer walking the razor’s edge between the glow of success and the gloom of failure.
There have been many movies about music and musicians, but the Coens—among the most unconventional of commercially successful filmmakers—take a characteristically unconventional path here: Their protagonist is not very likeable, nor very sympathetic, and his messy, meandering story is a tragi-comic odyssey of broken dreams, bashed hopes and bitter truths.
But we feel for him nonetheless, and Inside Llewyn Davis is another Coen Brothers gem. While not as boisterously gonzo as The Big Lebowski, as fabulously tangled as Fargo or as much of a toe-tapping toot as O Brother, Where Art Thou, it’s still cool, clever, cynical and achingly funny, meticulously crafted and marvelously quirky. And you don’t know where it’s going until it gets there—which, as it turns out, is right back where it started.
The soundtrack is outstanding, a slate of mostly traditional folk chestnuts given respectful new spins by producer T Bone Burnett, some stellar backing musicians and the cast. Isaac, the relative unknown who plays Llewyn, is phenomenal, doing his own singing and guitar playing live (instead of overdubbing or performing to prerecorded tracks). Pop superstar Justin Timberlake, who plays another folk singer, Jim, does likewise, as does Carey Mulligan, who portrays Jim’s wife and musical partner, Jean.
There’s John Goodman, a Coen mainstay, cropping up as an overfed, overdosed jazz musician. There’s the tabby cat that Llewyn spends much of movie lugging around, trying to find, or catch. There’s the novelty tune that Llewyn records with Jim and another singer (Adam Driver) that becomes one of the movie’s humorous high points.
And there’s a certain other folk singer from Minnesota, the Coen’s home state, waiting in the wings to blow everything—and everyone else—away, in the wind. As Llewyn seems to know, the times they are indeed a-changin’.
Inside Llewyn Davis may not blow a lot of its competition away at the box office—like some other Coens’ fare, it could be a bit of an acquired taste. But for anyone who can feel its genuine grasp of its subjects, its music and its times in its deep, dig-it grooves, this cinematic sonnet to a struggling ’60s singer might just become a greatest hit.
—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine