Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham, Stark Sands, Adam Driver, Max Casella, Ethan Phillips
Running Time: 105 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
The biggest surprise about Inside Llewyn Davis is just how narrow its focus is. The title should have probably been our first clue. This is a character study to the core. And it's a difficult, challenging one we should have known was coming since it's from the Coen brothers. And that will still don't see it coming is the greatest thing about it. What's surprising is just how unconventional it is, even by their standards. Anyone expecting an overview of the early 60's Greenwich Village folk scene and spoon fed warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia associated that period should probably search elsewhere. Which isn't to say they don't nail the time period completely in look, sound and everything else accompanying it. There is one brush with history, and while it's a big one, it's handled so nonchalantly that it hardly draws attention to itself. The Coens have nothing to prove. No one to impress. They just know exactly what they're doing, even when we haven't the slightest clue. Sometimes it's best to just trust the audience to figure things out.
Despite its subject being loosely based on late folk singer Dave Van Ronk (and his posthumously published 2005 memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street) this isn't Van Ronk biopic. That his ex-wife has criticized the film for being untruthful or inaccurate makes little sense considering it's not about him. By all accounts, Van Ronk was a well-liked guy with few (or any) of the problems this protagonist deals with. It's the trajectory of his career that provides the inspiration more than anything else. He's the jumping off point. Fame may have eluded him, but he wasn't a failure. Inside Llewyn Davis is all about failure and what it means. Or rather how thin the line separating failure and success can be. There were many more Dave Van Ronks than Bob Dylans, which makes one wonder if some strange combination of luck, opportunity, skill, timing or motivation caused the former to fade into obscurity while the latter became a legend? The film doesn't attempt to make sense of that because you can't. The Coens wisely choose not to try, and by doing that, somehow do.
At one point Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is told, rather pointedly, that he doesn't have the innate charisma or connection with the audience to ever become a successful solo act in the business. It's clearer to us even earlier that he just might not have the ability to connect with people at all in any capacity. Llewyn was one half of a semi-popular folk duo with musical partner, Mike Timlin (sung by Mumford and Sons' Marcus Mumford), who killed himself jumping off the George Washington Bridge. At this rate, he's headed in the same direction, with his life stuck in an endless loop of mooching off friends who probably should have stopped tolerating him a while ago. What's saddest and darkly comical about the situation is how talented he actually is and how little that seems to matter.
The film's opening, in which he sings a gut-wrenching rendition of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" at the Gaslight wins us over immediately, and we'll stay on his side even as it's clear later the lengths he'll go to squander that potential. His manager isn't paying him. His sister hates him. And now he's stuck with an orange cat belonging to his friends the Gorfeins, whose Upper West Side apartment he's just crashed at. But his most fractured relationship is with folk singer and ex-flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), who he impregnated in spite of her being married to good friend Jim (Justin Timberlake). Short on money and with a solo recording deal far out of reach, Llewyn has to choose between what he considers "selling out" to pursue a music career, or abandoning it altogether. What's so tragicomic is how he somehow finds a way to royally screw up both options. He's just one of those guys where nothing he does seems to go right no matter how hard he tries. And, admittedly, he isn't even trying very hard since he doesn't care, or maybe cares a little too much, with very few definitive actions backing it up.
It's one hilarious catastrophe after the next that leads him to desperately take Timberlake's Jim up on his invitation to join he and Al Cody (Adam Driver) to record a goofy, folk-pop song called "Please, Mr. Kennedy." A lot has already been said and written about the scene and song being the film's defining (and funniest) moment, and it is, but it's interesting to look at it from the perspective of what qualified as embarrassingly bad commercial music that appealed to the masses in the early '60's. The real irony might be that the ridiculously catchy, borderline brilliant song is about ten times better than anything that would even pass as legitimately good pop music today. It really isn't bad, but the performances from the three actors as they discuss and prepare to deliver it in the scene's context makes it seem like the silliest song ever written. In any other context, it's amazing. But Llewyn is truly mortified having to perform it, before unintentionally sabatoging what could have been his only big payout with a lack of business acumen.
As much action that takes place in a time specific New York, the strangest section of the film actually occurs on the way to Chicago, as Llewyn hitches a ride with a James Dean-like beat poet named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and his passenger, the cranky, belligerent jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman, in top form), who spends the entire road trip hurling insults and telling nonsensical stories. I'm guessing this is the place where the movie probably loses a lot of perplexed audience members, but anyone familiar with the Coens work will instantly recognize it as the most Coen-like part of this whole absurd, but strangely moving adventure that's brimming at the rim with eccentric characters.
The casting of Oscar Isaac was a masterstroke because we don't really know who he is and doesn't bring the baggage a bigger, more established name would. Watching him as Llewyn is like seeing (and of course listening) to him for the first time, since few are likely to even recognize the actor from his supporting roles in movies like Drive. He's the star of the show playing a depressed character who lacks the charisma and drive to ever be the star of the show. Think how difficult that must be. And yet, against all odds, he manages to make this selfish, angry guy completely likable every step of the way. There wasn't a moment I wasn't rooting for him to pull out of this rut, even as the chances of that continue to diminish with each passing disaster. And boy can Isaac ever sing. I'd say he should release a folk album but he already did. It's the soundtrack to this movie which, top to bottom, feels like a legitimate folk release from the early '60's. Everyone in this does their own singing with famed producer T-Bone Burnett again turning in revelatory work by seamlessly replicating the music of the period.
In a way, it also feels like we're discovering the better known Carey Mulligan for the first time since seeing her play a morose, angry character who curses like a sailor would seem about a thousand paces removed for her if not for the added layer of vulnerability she infuses her with. Timberlake, as usual, proves there are few limits to what he can do as a performer in any medium, as it's unlikely anyone suspected he'd be able to believably portray one half of a folk duo with Mulligan and that they'd look and sound so authentic.
"Play me something from Inside Llewyn Davis," requests record producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) when the singer arrives to meet him in Chicago. Llewyn responds by pouring his heart out with the beautifully depressing "The Death of Queen Jane," an eerily appropriate song selection given his current state. It's only upon reflection that this becomes the most important scene of the film, likely stinging quite a bit for anyone who's suffered for their art, been judged, or faced the pain of rejection. So basically everyone. Ultimately, does it matter whether this producer thinks there's any "money" in this? Are his criticisms valid or is he just on a power trip at Llewyn's expense? One could argue that if he truly had the passion and fire in his belly to see this through then it wouldn't have mattered to him one bit what this producer thought. If he loved making music he wouldn't he continue doing it, even if it meant temporarily finding another means of income? That's the big question mark. His talent is not.
A big fuss has been made by some about how a big a jerk this character is, but so was Bob Dylan, and we liked him. So that can't be it. History is written by the winners, even if the losers are often losers for a reason. Llewyn isn't quite as unlikable as he's been accused, or even as unlikable as some of the other characters he shares this Greenwich Village universe with. He's just badly floundering. Defeated by life and himself. The film's ending (which I won't dare spoil here) almost seems like a cruel (but wickedly hilarious) cosmic joke, reminding us that sometimes it really is only about being at the right place at the right time. And a bunch of other cards lining up just right. None of them have for this guy, partially by his own doing. The film does this loopy thing with time, folding over on itself and suggesting he may never break out of this cycle, opening up what was a relatively simple story for a variety of differing interpretations.
Admittedly it takes a while for this whole experience to settle in because there's so much more going on than first appears on the surface and I'm still not sure I've processed all of it. That final scene is a real zinger. We like to be on the winning team and watching movies about success make us feel good. But the few movies made about failure usually end up being deeper and more interesting. There are a limited number of ways to achieve, but no bounds to the amount of seemingly improbable ways someone can't. Llewyn Davis has most of them covered, and in showing that, the Coens give us exactly the '60's folk film we didn't know we wanted, or even necessarily deserved.