Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The new film from the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis, offers another take on a classic Coen character-type: the obtuse man, sometimes an artist, who encounters continual set backs and adversity and in the end may or may not learn anything in the process. It's in many ways a beautiful film, often darkly humourous, and rooted in a real historical moment that marks it as different from other Coen films.

It's not that the Coens haven't dealt in historical settings before. In fact, their films do a good job of chronicling various aspects of American history, but often with a tone of farce. Inside Llewyn Davis might be the Coen film that plays it the "straightest."

It's not hard to see the embittered folk-singer, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), as a compatriot of Larry Gopnik from A Serious Man, constantly feeling beaten down and blocked at every turn. But while Larry faces the universe with frustration and befuddlement, Llewyn is tainted with anger and loss.

The film revolves around one week in Llewyn's life. He is a struggling folk-artist in 1961 New York City. While he seems to have had some success with his poignantly-absent partner, Mike, he now struggles to string together gigs at Greenwich Village folk-music bar, the Gaslight, crashing on the couches of friends, and still pursuing success, but lacking even a warm coat in the New York winter. The New York winter is portrayed in varying shades of gray and brown, the film's colour palette reflecting the dark mood of its title character.

Llewyn's central conflict, if there is one, is being torn between making his music more palatable to the audience, while maintaining a sense of authenticity and loyalty to the music itself. What he needs to do is "connect with people," something that the folk impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) tells him that the increasingly popular Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) does. Troy is perhaps one of the most Coen-esque characters in the film, a strait-laced, upright, "careerist" whom Llewyn can scarcely contain his scorn for, especially when he takes Llewyn's place on the couch of his friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan).

Over the course of the film, Llewyn travels from couch to couch, from New York to Chicago, seeking his big break, but also dealing with the fallout from the awful ways he has treated his friends, both Jim and Jean, and also the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), a professor and his wife who treat him like understanding parents and whose cat he must retrieve when it escapes from the apartment in one of the film's early scenes.

While Llewyn is clearly dealing with a great deal of hurt, personally and professionally, he doesn't do much to garner the audience's sympathy. But unlike the Coens' other films, it is difficult for us to step outside the situation because the film firmly places us in Llewyn's subjectivity; Oscar Isaac is on screen for nearly the entire film and we never see any scenes that he is not a part of. The camera reflects this, often focusing solely on Llewyn, making excellent use of a narrow range of focus, and clearly and neatly mapping out the spaces that he inhabits. It is rare for character studies of this kind to be this strong, formally.

Fortunately, Llewyn, for all his anger, is a soulful character. It's not hard to see that he has missed a few big breaks and had some bad cards dealt to him. The film's humour comes from the characters and situations that he meets. In particular, the folk-singer Al Cody (Adam Driver) he and Jim record a song with and later the jazz musician (John Goodman) and driver (Garrett Hedland) that he hitches a ride with to Chicago offer Llewyn moments to step outside his circle of friends and business partners, and moments to laugh at the absurdity of it all. But the film is also structured so that there are moments in which Llewyn is offered choices to act in one way or another that will shape the narrative. He is not entirely without agency. But these are choices that will shape his soul, not necessarily his career.

This is one of the Coen's least farcical films and it plays the premise straight enough that I think it actually wants its audience to care about the characters as much as Llewyn cares about folk music. And the film cares about folk music too. The soundtrack, featuring the actual actors' singing and curated by T. Bone Burnett is stand out, one of those rare moments when the songs are actually as good as the characters in the film think they are, and maybe better in some cases.

In the end, it asks tough questions about whether caring and success go hand in hand. You may care enough, and you may even have enough talent, but you may not be the person who is going to have success. That requires breaking through to other people, cynically or honestly, and Llewyn's bitterness keeps people at a distance.

By rooting the film in the historical rise of the folk-scene in 60s New York City, it is inevitable that the presence of Bob Dylan is felt throughout the film. What was it that Dylan had that the (fictional) Llewyn doesn't? The film's final scene is a culmination of many sorts, tying the film's structure neatly together and bringing the story to where the history that we all know can finally begin.

9 out of 10

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, USA)

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham, John Goodman, Garrett Hedland, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Ethan Phillips, and Robin Bartlett.