The Coen Brothers have been on a serious role lately. It’s hard to believe that only a few years after their string of movies that included “The Ladykillers”, just about everything they did was a critical darling and a seriously good movie.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is no exception. It follows a struggling young folk musician in the winter of 1961, a bit early for the folk movement to take off, and spans about a week in his life. He’s talented and his music is moving, but he’s also a bit of a dick. He has an attitude that can only come from a lifetime of struggle and disappointment. When we first meet him, he’s playing an old classic in a small dive in New York. His life is a symphony of failures, mediocrity, and aimless drifting. He’s living day to day, or rather, hour to hour, never having any planned place to rest for the night as he drifts from couch to couch, trying to peddle his music and make some kind of mark in the industry. It’s not going so well. There’s also a cat.
Oscar Isaac is incredible in this as the suffering artist, and he also does all of his own singing and playing. He’s a bit of an ass, self-centered and at times aloof to the problems of others, but it’s also still easy to root for him to find something; anything good that might help him out. The rest of the cast is great as well, with Carey Mulligan as probably the angriest folk singer you’ll ever see, John Goodman (a staple of the Coen Bros. flicks), and Justin Timberlake in a small, but memorable role as the much more contented side of the folk singing scene.
A couple of things really sell this movie besides the acting, and the first and most obvious is the music. Much like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” all the music was supervised by T-Bone Burnett, and it's beautiful and melodic, suiting the somber and somewhat mysterious tone. The standout original composition is the “Please Mr. Kennedy” song, performed by Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver, which is a hilarious protest song about the space race. But the opening song, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” is probably the most poignant, especially when it’s reprised later in the film.
The other notable aspect of the movie is the amazing cinematography and the general look and feel. The world of the ’61 Greenwich Village folk scene is brought to life with stunning appeal. Everything is grey washed and has a dated look to it, almost as though it’s displayed through a mental fog. It has less an authenticity of a realistic setting and more of an imagined quality, as though it were the romanticized dream of what the times were like. This presents a strong contrast the darker and even downbeat material of struggle and seemingly impossible dreams just out of reach.
That’s not to say the smart and clever humor of the Coen Bros. isn’t present, because it most assuredly is, but it takes on a slightly different feel here. It’s a bit more muted and amusing than overtly humorous, but it all adds to the bigger picture of Llewyn’s going nowhere life.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” paints a soft and harsh look at a specific scene of a very specific time. To be just on the edge of the success of the genre and to struggle and fight only to barely hold on is the journey of the character. He desperately wants to do more than merely exist, but even existence isn’t that easy. There’s a short term view of his life, but if he can only hang in there perhaps hope is not all gone. Then again, he never had much to begin with. There’s always the next day to worry about it.