"I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul."
Throughout their career, The Coen Brothers have proven themselves to be masters of whatever genre they choose to work in from murder mysteries (Blood Simple, Fargo) to broad comedies (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) and serious drama (No Country For Old Men, Miller's Crossing). Their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, tackles the folk music scene of the early 1960s, and looked to be another film in the vein of their musically influenced and infused O Brother, Where Art Thou? Could they prove to once again strike gold, or would this be a major misstep in an otherwise illustrious career? Read on to find out...
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer when the story opens in 1961 New York City. He has recently embarked on a solo career after previously playing as part of a duo, and finds himself struggling to make ends meet by playing dive bars and couch surfing, relying on the kindness of anyone he hasn't alienated to keep himself afloat. A pair of folk singers on whom he heavily relies for support are Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), but a dalliance with Jean has left them at odds with one another, and he exploits Jim's kindness to borrow money or sit in on recording sessions to make some quick cash.
When he gets wind that his manager may not have sent his first solo album to a club owner and record producer (F. Murray Abraham) in Chicago, Llewyn decides to travel to Chicago and try to have his music heard by this influential man in the folk scene. Llewyn hitches a ride with a strange pair of men (John Goodman & Garrett Hedlund) to afford the trip west, and hopes to land a gig in Chicago, but his own ego and stubbornness may be too big of a roadblock to even get him there, let alone land him a contract.
As they do virtually every time they make a film, The Coen Brothers prove to be such effortlessly amazing filmmakers that they ease the audience right into Llewyn's story with almost no exposition or wasteful set-up. The way they craft the story is impeccable, always driving the story forward and allowing the characters room to breathe and in turn allowing the audience time to discover the story for themselves. It is a gorgeously rendered film, particularly considering it's the first time they've worked with French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, but it bears all the hallmarks of a Coen Brothers production from the intense focus on character to the colorful supporting players that flesh out the world to the almost "Homeric" nature of the story.
The character of Llewyn himself presents the film with a protagonist that is difficult to love, particularly because he seems like the sort of guy who has the drive of an artist unwilling to sell-out or compromise in any way, yet pessimistic enough to feel as though he could just chuck his entire career out the window and return to his former life as a merchant marine. His only happiness in life seems to come from the moments when he gets to perform his music, and the character comes to life in such a way that one can understand how much life and vibrancy he's capable of, but has been buried under a life filled with crushing disappointments. That he still clings to his artistic moral compass is what makes the dichotomy of his character all the more interesting, and while he's far from endearing, the heart that beats within him is enough to propel you forward on this journey with him.
Oscar Isaac has similarly scraped out a living as an underused and under appreciated character actor, and when given his moment in the spotlight, he doesn't squander it. His performance is revelatory, made all the more impressive by the fact that he does all his own singing and playing. He is phenomenally good, and doesn't succumb to the temptation to make the character lovable, which makes his performance that much better as a result. The rest of the supporting cast is fantastic as well, from bit players such as Stark Sands as a military man trying to break into the music business, to all of the aforementioned actors that populate this film. Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett also stand out as a wealthy intellectual couple that offer up their couch to the struggling artist whenever he needs it, and they capture the sort of character that they're playing incredibly well.
As for the music, it is equally amazing. Much like O Brother, Where Art Thou? you will find yourself wanting to own the soundtrack album by about halfway through the second song. Some of the songs are original compositions, and some are new arrangements of more traditional songs by music supervisor T-Bone Burnett, but they act as their own character in the film, filling the world out and making it feel as real and alive and vibrant as New York City must have felt at that very brief period in time between Elvis' domination of the charts and the upcoming explosion of the British Invasion. This film captures that time and place so incredibly well, it feels as if The Coen Brothers utilized a time machine to create this film.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a pure Coen creation that radiates with life and captures a time to which we can never return. While many will find themselves at odds with the film's title character, those willing to understand his struggles and see past his frustrating exterior will discover a film and a character worth journeying alongside. At a time in their career when most filmmakers would play things safe and just begin churning out satisfying yarns, The Coens continue to surprise with every film they make, and their refusal to compromise is our reward. There are no easy answers in Inside Llewyn Davis, and frankly, you shouldn't want it any other way.
GO Rating: 4.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]