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Inside Llewyn Davis

D: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen / 104m

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Jeanine Serralles, F. Murray Abraham

The Coen brothers have led a remarkably charmed cinematic life, making quirky, offbeat movies featuring all sorts of weird and wonderful characters in all sorts of weird and wonderful situations. Part of the fun to be had from watching a Coen brothers movie is that you never quite know what’s going to happen next; the Coens are so unpredictable there’s always that element of surprise in every movie, even something as outwardly formulaic as The Ladykillers (2004) or True Grit (2010). It’s a real surprise then, to find that the main character in their latest melancholy opus, Inside Llewyn Davis is, to put it mildly, a bit of a shit.

The movie is set in Greenwich Village, New York in 1961. Davis (Isaac) is a folk singer, eking out a career in clubs but without a clear idea on where he’s heading. He doesn’t have a place to live, so he sofa hops from place to place, trying the patience of friends and acquaintances, and never really repaying their kindnesses to him. He scoffs at the performances of others, including folk duo Jim (Timberlake) and Jean (Mulligan), but fails to see the weakness in his own abilities, weaknesses exacerbated by the recent death of his singing partner. Davis is horrible to just about everyone around him, foisting his unhappiness on them with all the fervour of a man trying to offload his troubles as fast as he gains them. His relationship with Jean becomes complicated when she tells him she’s pregnant and he might be the father. But Davis is so wretched she would rather have an abortion than give birth to a child that might be his. While he tries to deal with that issue, he’s also trying to deal with having lost his friends, the Gorfeins, cat. (When he takes a replacement cat back to them, it leads to one of the best lines in a Coen brothers movie ever.)  Taking a chance he can kick start his solo career in Chicago, Davis travels with proto-beat poet Johnny Five (Hedlund) and musician Roland Turner (Goodman) to audition for promoter Bud Grossman (Abraham). What he learns there has the possibility of changing his life.

Inside Llewyn Davis - scene

From its darkened, confessional-style opening at the Gaslight Café with Isaac proving himself to be a passionate vocalist, Inside Llewyn Davis is a fitting tribute to the era when folk music was at a turning point (see the singer who follows Davis on stage at the movie’s end). As well, though, it’s a clever, witty and engaging look at a man for whom Life is a constant struggle, but only because he hasn’t developed the ability to be happy. Thanks to a terrific performance by Isaac, Davis isn’t entirely the angry curmudgeon he appears to be. There are glimmers of hope throughout the movie that elicit the audience’s sympathy for him, and if he buries those glimmers almost as soon as they pop up, it’s still enough that they happen for him. Davis is like the black sheep of the family or the troubled friend you secretly like – despite all the times they upset you or let you down – and hope Life will eventually be kind to. For Davis it’s all about the music, the only thing he truly cares about, and around which his life revolves; without it he would be a truly broken man.

Once again, the Coens have chosen a strong supporting cast for their leading man, with Mulligan’s angry turn a standout, and Goodman close behind as the disabled, anecdote spouting Turner. It’s good to see the likes of Driver and Sands given the chance to shine in small, beautifully realised roles, and Abraham too, albeit in a smaller though more pivotal role (and obviously fitted in between episodes of Homeland). A wintry New York looks cold and yet somehow vibrant thanks to crisp, striking photography courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel, and the period detail is subtly evoked by Jess Gonchor’s production design and Deborah Jensen’s art direction.

What is less obvious from this review so far is the humour that permeates the movie. Davis may be an awkward, unlikely source of merriment, but the Coens weave comedy into the somewhat solemn proceedings with deceptive skill. There are laughs to be had, and they’re scattered here and there in the script like precious jewels. And then there’s the music. Perhaps closest to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) in terms of dramatic importance, the music in Inside Llewyn Davis is extremely well chosen, both for reflecting the state of Davis’s life, and for providing a candid view of the folk music scene at the time (check out the wonderfully daft Please Mr. Kennedy, an ode to world peace performed by Isaac, Timberlake and Driver that amazes as much as it amuses). As already noted, Isaac has a commanding vocal style, and his deep, rich, melodic delivery suits the material well; it’s hard now to imagine anyone else in the role.

Rating: 9/10 – a richly detailed movie that delights and impresses in equal measure; confident, absorbing, and wickedly funny in places, Inside Llewyn Davis confirms once more that when it comes to off-kilter, the Coen brothers are in a class of their own.

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