Despite having already collaborated with musician T. Bone Burnett on O Brother Where Art Thou, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen surprisingly hadn’t made a film before that was strictly about a struggling musician. After watching the impeccably crafted, slyly hilarious, and poignantly melancholic 60s folk music scene based Inside Llewyn Davis (winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), it’s hard to believe it took the writing and directing duo so long to come around to it. Their new and probably soon to become most iconic protagonist fits perfectly into the Coens’ history of crafting character who are their own worst enemies while taking the emotion in their filmmaking to new and dizzying heights.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a down and out singer-songwriter-classical cover artist who has recently gone solo, not by choice, but because of the loss of his performing partner with whom he was only able to find a modicum of success with in the first place. Down on his luck, Llewyn couch surfs his way around 1961 New York (just before Bob Dylan would make the Greenwich Village music scene into a watershed musical movement) struggling just to be heard.
Although a solo guitarist, Llewyn marches to the beat of his own drummer, often making idiotic decisions out of a sense of moral superiority over those around him. He may have knocked up the now incredibly pissed off wife (Carey Mulligan) of the last really great friend he has left (Justin Timberlake). He walks away from a chance at royalties from a potentially chart topping novelty song he played on because he needs cash as soon as possible and isn’t willing to wait for his slow moving record label to clear him to work as a studio session musician. He accidentally lets loose and loses the cat of an upper west side couple (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) that let him stay as much as he wants, despite his ego swallowing aversion to them overall. He goes on an ill fated trip to Chicago with a drug addled blowhard jazz musician (John Goodman) and his mute badass driver (Garrett Hedlund, who might be talking the piss out of a similar role that he played in On the Road) in an effort to be heard by someone who can properly manage his career (F. Murray Abraham). He can’t even seem to get his job back as a merchant marine in an easy fashion when he gets really desperate for cash.
Llewyn isn’t a stupid man, but an incredibly petulant and self-serious artist. Much like many Coen leads, Isaac plays the character as sympathetic, but only to a certain point. He’s a man that’s clearly been through some major life events before we meet up with him, but he hasn’t learned any lessons from it yet. He’s unapologetic for the most part, and there are very few setbacks in his life that he hasn’t brought on himself. He’s brash, abrasive, arrogant, but undeniably talented and undoubtedly working his hardest to be successful at something he loves doing. He’s always on the grind, with an unrelenting drive and determination to be heard, but he also can’t stop talking shit about anyone who might become more successful than him.
In many ways, the film takes The Coens previously well documented love for The Odyssey and plunks into it a quixotic obstinate into its centre. It takes considerable effort to make the journey of such a potentially unlikeable character intriguing, but the Coen’s episodic look at a life in flux holds considerably amounts of surprise and nuance. The moments that have the most impact on Llewyn and his work are curt, to the point, and often handled like swift punches to the stomach. These are the moments most often not controlled by Llewyn himself, with the things he’s doing to screw up his own life often dragged out to equate a sense of guilt and frustration that Isaac plays out subtly.
While the Coens bring sharp writing, tight direction, and a spot on sense of time and place, and T. Bone returns to deliver a top notch soundtrack, the film belongs to Isaac, a great talent who much like his onscreen persona has been toiling in obscurity for far too long. He looks like a professional musician, with the actual chops to back it all up, but he also encapsulates a man unaware of the time signature of the world around him. He’s impatient and impulsive, but not without reason. He never wants to appear desperate, but he’s extremely in need of something to go his way fast. Isaac brings what’s missing from the Coens writing, which is a sense of inner turmoil that just can’t be written. It’s an instinctual performance unlike any other this year. Whether Llewyn is exploding with rage at being asked to simply start playing and singing at a dinner party or a quiet moment of contemplation over having potentially having hit an animal on the side of the road, Isaac portrays the character like he’s a grand, unsung artist. Llewyn is a man who feels every emotion like it’s the end of the world because outside of music feeling the world around him without a filter is the only thing he ever feels comfortable doing.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Inside Llewyn Davis is that it can be easily enjoyed by people who don’t even remotely give a rat’s ass about 1960s folk music. It might be a petty thing to say, but considering the current cultural landscape, it says quite a lot about the film’s ability to entertain and the continued ability of the Coens to make the time-worn timeless. If you were to jokingly tell someone Llewyn Davis was a straightforward true story, they might believe you. Granted, some of the aspects of Llweyn’s life are aping the experiences of Phil Ochs and Dave Van Ronk to a degree, but Isaac and the Coens’ unique picture of frustrated artistry is just as affecting as the best non-fiction.