Inside Llewyn Davis is not the first time that the Coen brothers have portrayed a period of distinctly American music, but beyond that the film holds little in common with the elephant in the room, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. While music plays a crucial role in their latest work—in fact entire scenes are devoted to the performance of songs—for the Coens the point seems to be less about the music per se and more about documenting a particular moment in American history and specifically American themes. Whether it’s small-town murder, drug violence along the southern border, CIA paranoia, and now early ’60s folk music, the Coens have been masters of casting, plot, and atmosphere. Inside Llewyn Davis continues their winning streak.
Oscar Isaac plays the titular character, a not particularly likable, entirely selfish curmudgeon who scowls and deadpans his way through New York City’s Greenwich Village folk music scene in 1961. His character is loosely based on a real person, deceased folk musician Dave Van Ronk. Davis is wonderful in the role as a struggling folkie constantly striving for authenticity while trying to make ends meet. And his ends are just barely meeting. He relies on the generosity of others, sleeping on the couch of a wealthy Upper West Side professor, and occasionally crashing with the duo Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), fellow struggling folk musicians. He must have some ingratiating quality besides his musical talent, but it’s hard to see what it is as he mopes and snarks his way through the bohemian coffee house and nightclub scene. To make matters worse, Jean is pregnant with what is most likely his child. This is a deep betrayal of his unwitting friend Jim, a cuckold who still looks out for Llewyn by offering him a chance to record a sappy jingle for a quick paycheck. During this session, Llewyn meets Al Cody (Girls’ Adam Driver), who offers him a chance to drive his car to Chicago, taking the movie into surreal road-trip territory and further crushing Llewyn’s dreams of musical success and legitimacy.
Inside’s plot is circular; the questions that the opening scene raise are answered by the film’s end. Just after finishing a set at a Village club, a man in the alley outside beats the piss out of Llewyn, a wonderfully jarring turn coming just after Isaac’s virtuoso performance of some heartfelt folk tunes. The songs were produced by T Bone Burnett and performed by the actors themselves, with some help from Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford. Oscar Isaac’s performance is of particular note. He is a beautiful singer, masterfully phrasing the lyrics and adding just enough grit to his voice to keep them from becoming too saccharine. (Such is the nature of the music.) Music nerds take note: the production and performance of the songs make them feel a bit more modern than they should. While not inauthentic—many are, after all, of the period—they just don’t exactly always read early ’60s. That being said, the music works well within the context of the film.
This being a Coen brothers’ film, Inside is, of course, thankfully not a straight biopic or musical genre piece, and is quite funny in the most unexpected spots. For example, John Goodman appears about halfway through the film as Roland Goodman, a passenger in the car Llewyn is delivering to Chicago. He’s a Dr. John-esque, flamboyant figure, made barely comprehensible by heavy drug use, who travels with a mysterious manservant named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). The entire trip is more acid than road, as shots of the darkened highway pass underneath the car as snowflakes drift into the headlights, amplified by thudding effects.
Ultimately, Llewyn is an unlikable character who is hard to dislike, another take on the anti-hero that permeates our modern media landscape. But despite this familiar trope, the Coens have created a film that is wholly original and highly entertaining. Inside Llewyn Davis maintains their unique vision while paying homage to an important time period in American music and the beginning of the counter-culture movement in New York City.
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writer: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Cary Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake
Release Date: Dec. 6, 2013 (limited)