It’s been 13 years since Joel and Ethan Coen gave us the bluegrass energy of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and now they’ve jumped forward 30 years to 1961 and the folk music scene of Greenwich Village with Inside Llewyn Davis, a film so perfect it appears almost effortless. Opening in the Gaslight Cafe, the film’s title character croons on stage under the soft glow of the spotlight, capturing the attention of the audience to the point one man’s cigarette is only a bent stick of ashes, defying gravity as he looks on without moving.
As an audience member, this scene, captured beautifully by director of photography Bruno Delbonnel, immediately places you in the time and place. Over the next 105 minutes we’ll follow Lleywn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he moves from couch to couch, looking for a place to escape the cold New York winter as he hopes to fulfill his dream to make it as a musician in a world that doesn’t seem ready for what his songs have to say.
The Coens’ used the life and music of iconic folk musician Dave Van Ronk and his memoir “[amazon asin=”030681479X” text=”The Mayor of MacDougal Street”]” as the primary source material for their story. In doing so, the fictional Llewyn Davis captures the mood of an era where many an artist has been overlooked while laying the tracks for artists such as Bob Dylan and others like him. The great thing is this isn’t some sort of a musical history lesson. In fact, it’s a rather heartfelt drama loaded with dark comedy, but for the most part it’s just a brief moment in time captured on film and it’s one hell of a lovely picture.
Inside Llewyn Davis is stripped down and laid to bare as Llewyn bounces from house-to-house, crashing with the likes of Jim and Jean Berkey (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) and the Gorfeins on the Upper West Side, parents to Llewyn’s one-time partner in their duo act, Timlin & Davis. Now on his own, Llewyn is struggling as a solo act with a manager uninterested in helping him any more than he has to.
And from the cold New York streets to the just-as-cold streets of Chicago, Llewyn hitches a ride with Garrett Hedlund (who grunts more than speaks and not very often at that) at the wheel and a passed out John Goodman in the back. It’s here, in the Windy City you get one of the most deliciously Coen-esque moments of the film as Llewyn performs for a local club owner played by F. Murray Abraham. Debonnel’s lighting is on point and Isaac’s vocals fill the room with perfect clarity. The camera slowly zooms in, Davis’ voice swells and Abraham delivers the line of the film, but I won’t be spoiling that here.
The Coens don’t play to typical Hollywood archetypes or give their characters the easy way out. You see Llewyn’s passion all over his face and you also see the level of despair he’s reached, not knowing which direction to turn as it seem sthe world has turned their back on him. He argues with his sister over what to do, she suggests packing it in may be the best choice. “And what, simply exist?” he counters, not wanting to give up on his dream or end up like his dad.
Davis isn’t your typical leading man. He’s something of an anti-hero and he isn’t the most agreeable character, but the fact you never feel he’s hiding anything from you, makes it easier to open yourself up to him as an audience member. The overall film benefits from its non-conformist narrative and the fact it isn’t necessarily about anything allows it to be about almost everything.
Outside of Isaac’s terrific work as Davis — his singing ability lending an even greater amount of respect to the character — the rest of the cast is largely supporting. Mulligan probably gets the most time out of any of the supporting cast and she’s just as talented at spitting verbal hellfire in Davis’ vicinity as she is at well-timed moments of tenderness. Hedlund, Goodman, Abraham and Adam Driver all add something special to the film as the Coens continue to not only cast the right people in the right roles, but give them something to do.
One of the film’s greatest attributes, however, is the Coens’ sense of timing. The scene with F. Murray Abraham I mentioned above comes at exactly the right moment and they don’t play it as a musical insert as most films would. It’s not a moment where the lead character plays only one verse of a song and we’re meant to pretend he played the whole thing. The Coens allow the music to be just as much a part of the film as the characters and their timing is perfect.
If you were to nail me down and ask me what it’s all about, I’d say it’s a film about the small things, both in terms of narrative and craft. The level of detail is impressive as is the fact it doesn’t overwhelm you with precision. The humor is so perfect it allows a small drama such as this to be just as entertaining as it is profound. A running bit that has Llewyn caring for a stray cat is the best evidence of this I can provide as it goes from something of a comedic and tender beat to a metaphor for the hard life he’s living. If ever there was an art film open to the masses this may be the one as it has a little something for everyone.
This is a film rich in mood, character and atmosphere that may one day be remembered as an all American classic. Not a single piece is out of place, not that you’d necessarily notice as you’ll be too busy drinking it all in.