Inside Llewyn Davis – A Coen brothers’ folk tale of one struggling musician…and a cat

The Coen brothers love to put their characters through tough times. From The Dude (Jeff Bridges) in The Big Lebowski (1998) who is thrown into a heap of trouble because of a misunderstanding, when all he wants is his rug back (“That rug really tied the room together”) to Barton Fink (1991) (John Turturro) who just wants to finish his latest screenplay when events around him continue to escalate beyond his control. Their most recent and most relevant example of this though would be A Serious Man (2009) in which a helpless man called Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) watches as his life crumbles around him. Now seeming almost like a sort of counterpart to A Serious Man is their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), which continues the Coens’ exploration of tales of uncontrollable fate. The Davis of the title is their newest down-on-his-luck creation, a once famous folk musician called Llewyn (Oscar Isaac). Llewyn has fallen on hard times, finding it tough to make a decent living from his music and having to resort to crashing on people’s couches to get by. What follows is a week in the life of this downtrodden musician and how he tries to survive day by day as he travels around for a second chance that might come his way.

Not since O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) have the Coens tackled a film that features music so prominently, so much so that it becomes another character in the film here. Set in the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene the music becomes the driving force of their film and takes you on a journey alongside Llewyn. The songs, produced by T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford, are all fabulous, perfectly setting the time period and making you feel a part of this bygone era. The music that the Coens feature so prominently in the film also serves to remind us that music is a life source to Llewyn – something he uses to try and get by when all else seems lost. As such there are many moments in which they stop the narrative simply to bask in the performances, in particular that of Oscar Issac’s who plays the downtrodden man in question. Isaac is mesmerising to watch in these moments, his singing voice spine-tingling beautiful and drawing you in. He is also completely arresting to watch throughout the rest of the film, his face set to a look of permanent disappointment as he deals with the many problems that mount up against him. Isaac makes us feel sympathetic towards Llewyn but also shows him as a deeply flawed man at times. Indeed it’s hard to think of another person who would have been more perfect in this role than Isaac turns out to be.

And as with any other Coen brothers’ film, they have assembled their usual cast of boisterous or oddball supporting characters in their script. Particularly excellent is Carey Mulligan as a fellow folk singer called Jean, and a perfectly foul-mouthed woman who yells abuse at Llewyn whenever she can. The rest of the roles are more like cameo appearances running from John Goodman as an odious jazz musician, Garrett Hedlund as an almost wordless beat poet who just oozes cool, Adam Driver as another struggling musician and F. Murray Abraham as a mystical sort of record producer. Yet as usual the performances and the Coens’ smart writing, even for these short roles, lift these people above simply being outlandish caricatures, instead making them realistic and believable. It is only Justin Timberlake who weirdly doesn’t shine as Jean’s partner Jim. On paper it sounds like a role that would be more than suited to him, obviously given his musical background. But it is only his singing that really works, Timberlake looking slightly uncomfortable in the role and not leaving anything of a lasting impression any time he is onscreen. Yet this is most certainly a problem of bad casting rather than the writing.

One of the things that can be expected from any Coen brothers’ film and script is that deliciously dark comedic edge, which is unsurprisingly present in Inside Llewyn Davis too. However this Coen brothers’ story is their most sombre yet with a more tragic aspect that we aren’t always used to with their work. Similar to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens’ take on James Joyce’s Ulysses, Inside Llewyn Davis features a journey of sorts as well – that of Llewyn’s quest for money, but also more literally at the halfway point in the film when Llewyn goes searching for someone who might be able to make his ambitions come true. Yet there is also another similarity to O Brother, Where Art Thou? in the way that this too is a type of folk tale (albeit featuring actual folk music too). Inside Llewyn Davis has an elliptical story with a beginning and an ending that bookend it in such a way to deliver a moral message to the viewer, much like a folk tale would do. It would seem that this particular tortured Coen brothers’ character is slightly different to the other ones we’ve seen before, as the Coens offer a sort of moral warning about his fate. This folk tale edge to the film is also the reason Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coens’ more beautifully written, complex and fascinating tales to watch.

One man’s struggle, a journey and dark comedy at every turn – Inside Llewyn Davis really is classic Coen brothers. It is also one of their more melancholy tales. As usual it is superbly directed by the pair and beautifully shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel who was previously responsible for the lush visuals in Amélie (2001). Quite different from the colourful shots in that film, Inside Llewyn Davis is filled with grey and dull visuals setting the mood for the drab time period and perfectly reflecting Llewyn’s own hardships. In my opinion it isn’t the Coens’ best ever film, maybe because of that darker and sadder tone. However it is still a charming story and one of their most clever and moralistic yet. And Oscar Isaac truly makes it a captivating watch, proving himself to be a name to look out for in the future. A folk tale with a complete difference and with a stonking, beautiful soundtrack…and featuring one of the best cat performances you’ll ever see.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on March 7, 2014.

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