A series of unforgiving circumstances unfurl in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis.’ Largely repeating his own faults, the film follows the now partner-less musician Llewyn Davis (new vocal charm Oscar Isaac) gritting through the early 1960s New York City folk scene as winter and an unprofitable solo record target his esteem. Couch surfing in and out of the lives of those willing to stand him, lacking responsibility with women, and reviving a musical “careerist” ego that sets him back, Llewyn marks a character in the Coen brother repertoire that both damages and warms us.
It’s hard to believe that Llewyn’s career is at a low considering the quality of Isaac’s sharp hearty tones that slice delicately through the air. Having auditioned high and low for the right combination of actor and singer, Isaac made the Coen cut. Opening the film with ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’ we’re introduced to a character that for all other purposes could be well on his way considering the talent, but what unfolds disproves us all. Part of what Joel and Ethan Coen bring to cinema is their capability in mixing aesthetic glory with the woes of human nature.
Carey Mulligan plays friend Jim’s (Justin Timberlake at ease) wife Jean who is at odds with Llewyn because, as she tells him, “everything you touch turns to shit.” But on top of her Mulligan prowess and Jean’s coolness towards Llewyn, she also demonstrates her musical chops singing the quaint ‘Five Hundred Miles’ (popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary) as a trio with Jim and their guest Troy (Stark Sands). In these moments we forget the misgivings of characters and are entirely drawn to the alternately enriching mood that is the music.
Frequently saying the wrong thing, carting around and then losing the Gorfein’s cat he lets out after taking their hospitality, being left to hitchhike to Chicago once his quiet nondescript chauffer Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) is taken away under arrest, asking around for money, and waiting for record royalties, gigs, or better representation that continually disappoint him: Llewyn’s sense of defeat episodically builds block by block, blow by blow. With the leading man unable to catch a break and without his deceased partner, the film’s ultra smooth lighting, the elegance of the music (supervised by T-Bone Burnett) that can permeate through any moment, and the patient editing by the brothers themselves gives the relief beyond the story that balances the beauty and gloom.
The simple pains of Llewyn’s treachery of travel through New York and out to Chicago for a bit, including the discomfort of a cold wet shoe, attach to our sympathies while simultaneously disheartening us with his poorly handled situations, like yelling off an older female performer. Quick to be irritated and easily sorrowed, Isaac earnestly adds poise to a hopeless man who’s separated his own rhythm from the rest of the world, stuck in his rigid authenticity. His subtleties and bleak expressions are telling; awoken early to Troy chomping on his cereal in a rocking chair Llewyn asks him, straight face, “What’s next? Do you plug yourself in somewhere?” Far from a boring “square” life, as Llewyn calls Jean’s idea of suburban living, and lacking true discipline, Llewyn can’t adhere to any mold and wanders his music career, trying for doors that don’t open.
Some characters are introduced that pull the protagonist along his rough path and enter the screen to soon leave it for good. One can almost compare elements to Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ where characters like Ekberg’s Sylvia don’t return to the screen yet Marcello staggers along, a spot along his journey. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ brings the tactless jazz musician and junkie Roland Turner (John Goodman), co-traveling to Chicago with Llewyn, into the running. Adam Driver makes an appearance as Al Cody who, together with Jim and Llewyn, records the perky space tune ‘Please Mr. Kennedy.’ Driver adds a unique and simple presence, one who’s solo career also fell short, but who sings music Llewyn distastes to pay the rent and move forward. Llewyn is ever falling back, sticking to his short-term ideals.
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a fresh achievement in the Coen brother listing that is a sincere portrait of a lost man and musically divine. As Llewyn finishes ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ for music manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) in Chicago hoping for new representation, Llewyn stops playing the guitar and ends with his pure voice. His face changes here to reveal a confidence and sensitivity that’s unlike the rest of the film and nearly convinces us his trials are over. Seeing part of a good man underneath, Grossman’s reaction may come as a surprise. With a familiar frank sense of humor intact (think their 2009 ‘A Serious Man’), this film beautifully traces a man on and off course while, many times, the music literally tunes us in.