The Coen brothers (The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men) take on the world of folk music in their latest film, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis.’ They hit all the right notes with this brilliantly crafted story of a struggling artist. It’s a wistful look at New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961, before Bob Dylan’s arrival would turn the music scene and popular culture upside down. As Dylan’s lyrics so adamantly express, “The times they are a-changin.” It was a hopeful time for America with newly elected President John F. Kennedy. What makes the film stand out as a masterwork, besides the witty script and superb cinematography, is its clever look at that fine line between artistic success and failure.
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a fascinating and complex character study. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t stop what’s coming. It’s a circular narrative. The story recounts a week in the life of fictional folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). In the wonderful opening scene, Llewyn performs the melancholy song, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Café. You can see the sadness in his dark brown eyes. Afterwards, club owner Pappi (Max Casella) tells Llewyn that a friend is waiting for him in the back alley. A mysterious figure emerges from the shadows and proceeds to beat him up. There is no explanation for this unfortunate confrontation but it’s an important moment for our protagonist. The filmmakers successfully grab our attention and now want us to tag along on his heartrending journey.
We all have a friend like Llewyn. He’s the kind of guy that borrows $20 bucks and never pays you back. He is always broke and practices the art of couch surfing until he overstays his welcome. Llewyn is his worst enemy. He sabotages friendships as well as business opportunities. There is one cringe-inducing moment when he takes a session gig on a ditzy song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” with fellow folk singers Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver. The song is destined to be a hit but Llewyn is so desperate for quick cash that he signs away his right to royalties. It’s just one of many bad decisions he makes on the road to mediocrity.
Llewyin spends his days crashing between Columbia academic acquaintances the Gorfeins (Ethan Philips and Robin Bartlett) on the Upper West Side and his musician friends, the folk singing group Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) in the Village. Their similarity to ‘Peter, Paul and Mary’ is uncanny. The duo performs a beautiful rendition of the folk music classic, “Five Hundred Miles.” When Llewyn shows up at Jean’s apartment, he has the Gorfeins’ marmalade tabby cat under his arm. The stray ran out the door at the last second. The cat is symbolic of Llewyn’s alter ego. Like an alley cat, he has no real home and depends on the kindness of others. When he gets on somebody’s nerves, he is asked to leave and moves on to the next sap.
Like Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ Llewyn goes on an ominous journey. He takes a road trip to Chicago with surly jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and ‘On the Road’ hipster Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund). Llewyn goes to the Gate of Horn, a folk club where he auditions for owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). He silently listens as Llewyn croons a song on his guitar in the darkened nightclub. Without blinking an eye, he says “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Dejected, Llewyn accepts the verdict and trudges back to New York through the bitter cold. At one point, he retreats into a diner trying to warm himself with cup after cup of coffee while his shoes are soaked from the melted snow. It’s a gut-wrenching scene.
If you’re a fan of the Coen brothers, you’ll want to catch ‘Inside Llewyn Davis.’ It’s a brilliant character study of a struggling artist desperately trying to reach his dreams. It’s a somber tale that will frustrate some yearning for a tidy Hollywood ending. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always work out that way. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is now playing at The Flicks, downtown Boise and an art house theater near you. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/9JvHEDJEguY#aid=P8xdS51MJ7A.