A musical tale of artistic futility that is more effective after the credits roll.
In general I find being a month and a half behind on my film reviews irritating, but in the case of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” I’m glad I’ve had time to let the film marinate. Initially this film felt so slight that it didn’t elicit much of a reaction from me. It seemed “just” a minor tale about a ill-fated folk singer who deserved most of the bad luck he got. Yet the film continued to fester in my brain in the intervening weeks. The songs have been stuck on repeat in my head. The cool blue images of early 1960s New York have lingered on the edge of my consciousness. I even cultivated a bit of sympathy for the film’s frustrated and disagreeable protagonist. In other words, I’ve been won over by its melancholic charms.
One of the Coen brother’s many strengths is their ability to viscerally evoke time and place, particularly in bygone eras. Granting that I wasn’t around then, the world of “Inside Llewyn Davis” looks and feels like New York City circa 1961. (Even if it is a complete misrepresentation of those days, that it conveys authenticity is much more important than strict adherence to historical accuracy.) Folk music hadn’t yet established itself as a major political/commercial force, the hippies hadn’t joined the party yet, and there is the loitering presence of post-World War II stiffness still permeated the air. The times, they aren’t-a-changing, but they will be soon.
At the center of this proto-burgeoning folk music scene is Llewyn Davis (Oscaar Issacs,) an aspiring musician whose character is loosely based on real life folk singer Dave Von Ronk. Truthfully though, Llewyn is one of those brilliantly put-upon Coen Brother’s creations. His life plays out as a string of misfortunes that have been unfairly thrust upon him. Certainly much about his situation straight up bad luck, but a lot of his misery is self-induced. A sort of bad karma stemming from how much he seems to loathe everyone around him, including himself.
Like most assholes, his nastiness comes from a place of profound insecurity. Llewyn was part of a rising folk music duo that was on the verge of hitting it big until his partner killed himself. Desperate to receive validation as a solo act and extremely sensitive at the prospect of being valued only as a part of an act, Llewyn makes a great deal of choices based on his own standards of artistic integrity, standards which let opportunities for commercial success slip away. Yet nobody sees the merits of Llewyn’s music. (Even Llewyn himself seems to have his doubts.) This has created a streak of bitterness which sharply contrasts the optimistic and heartfelt music he writes and performs.
With a solo record that isn’t selling, Llewyn survives by cycling through his friend’s couches, but he is quickly running out of options. He has stayed for the last time at the apartment of his ex-girlfriend Jean(Carey Mulligan.) She now lives and sings with her new boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake,) and once she gets enough money from Llewyn for an abortion of a baby that may or may not be his, she would prefer not to see him again thank you very much. Llewyn also has the Gorfiens, a pair of middle-aged professors who let him stay with them if for no other reason it bolsters their liberal cred, but Llewyn snaps at them when they sing-along with one of his songs, and this after losing their cat. You tell me whether you think this is the kind of film where things work out for the hero.
The Coen Brother’s typically great direction aside, Oscar Isaac’s performance is vital because of his ability to generate pity and scorn. Llewyn looks down on seemingly everyone he speaks with in the film, yet people can’t help but try and help him. Every time he does something right, he endures the consequences for some earlier jerk thing he did. Llewyn is stuck in a folk music limbo, with just a modicum of success to keep him clinging to hope that he might “make it” someday. It might not strike you at first, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” has great music and the usual Coen cocktail of humor and sadness. Like “The Cranberries” might say, I think you have to let it linger.