Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
Running Time: 104 min
Plot: Following the suicide of his music collaborator and best friend Mike, Llewyn Davis wanders from couch to couch, gigging and failing to promote his introspective solo album.
In answer to media criticisms of Inside Llewyn Davis’ overwhelmingly downbeat nature, Joel Coen says this; ‘The success movies have been done’. While it may well be the bleakest film the ‘two-headed director’ has ever put out, it has buckets of charm and an irresistible atmosphere that pulls you straight into the New York folk scene of 1961.
Inside Llewyn Davis is less a structured story than a sequence of events, an Odyssey of rejection and analogous encounters. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling solo musician coming to terms with the suicide of his partner Mike – the Simon to his Garfunkel- and he’s practically living out of cardboard boxes (not quite literally, but the albums he’s trying to sell are contained within them). Llewyn spends his time smoking cigarettes and hoping to be plucked from his self-constructed, Greenwich based misery. Though he has friends in Jean (Carey Mulligan) and the always forgiving Gorfein family (Ethan Phillips/RobinBartlett), the former wants to get his accidental child aborted while the latter smother his artistic free spirit. Occasionally you get to escape the depressive downpour that is Llewyn’s life; visits to his disapproving sister (Jeanine Serralles) and a couple of days on the great open road breathe vigour into the overbearing sadness of the film, but they only serve to compound Lleywn’s inability to pull himself out of his slump.
Even though Llewyn’s world is intensely tiring and drains you of all emotion, you’ll find yourself reluctant to leave. This is mostly due to the irresistibly wistful folk soundtrack, gleefully chirped by a bunch of would be Dylans and Nelsons, all tricked out in tweed, spouting misplaced melancholia and politically charged idiom into the smoke filled stratosphere.
The Coen brothers have made an excellent decision in never allowing Llewyn to fully express himself. Of course he vents through his music, but you really know if he’s talented or merely feeding off his dead friend’s legacy. The audience can never be sure of his motivations – ‘This is my job!’… Whether or not he really feels that way is down to the viewer to decide. Llewyn Davis is like an emasculated, insecure Odysseus; travelling far and wide but always playing catch up with his innumerable troubles, crumbling before the Cyclops of the corporate music business and failing to resist the sirens of his past.
In terms of mood, the brothers Coen have captured perfection. Swathes of grey expanse and stoic apartment blocks dominate the scenery, and the hazy lighting and unhurried camera movements draw you ever deeper – you’re always drifting towards the focal point of each scene, but it’s imperceptible at the best of times and you find yourself lulled into the environment and gloom within.
Oscar Isaac is excellent in the lead role, showcasing his outstanding talents and giving it all he’s got in the soulful solo numbers. Isaac ‘s dismissive expressions and blunt delivery never let on to the way Llewyn truly feels – does he take things too lightly, or way, way too seriously? Before moving onto the rest of the cast, Llewyn’s feline companion must not escape mention; Ulysses the cat gives a tenacious display which rivals that of the dog from The Artist, and his whiskery face comes to symbolise all of Llwyn’s seemingly endless problems.
As the spurned and hateful Jean, Carey Mulligan does an excellent job. Her usual soft spoken sweetness has been replaced here with foul mouthed fury, and her disdain at Llewyn’s mere existence (‘You ARE shit’) makes you question your getting behind the protagonist at all. Justin Timberlake’s turn as her unsuspecting partner Jim is amusingly sincere, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t belong in such a high calibre cast. Back in Coen corner, as usual, is John Goodman, this time in the irascible guise of jazz musician Ronald Turner – as always, he brings the goods.
American music legend T Bone- Burnett collaborated on the film, with Mumford and Sons getting stuck in too. Track after track of acoustic glory will have you hunting down the OST like a folk-fiend when you get home. Some of the Coens’ recent films (i.e Burn After Reading, A Serious Man), though entertaining, felt just a tad bit slight. Inside Llewyn Davis is cut from a different and altogether more lovingly crafted cloth. There is plenty of re-watchability here; it’s an important work which gets right down to the nitty gritty of the human condition, precisely capturing that feeling of being trapped… but not really caring all that much. It looks mighty fine, too.