The Coen brothers’ latest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, approaches a struggle known to any musician over the decision to keep playing music for a living or to give it up and find something that is more financially stable. This is a premise that really anybody can relate to considering we live in a society where getting a 9 to 5 job that pays the bills is sadly what is expected of most people. The Coen brothers capture the harsh reality of a folk musician, Llewyn Davis, trying to make his way in the music scene of Greenwich Village in 1961. This was a harsh time for folk artists, before Bob Dylan burst onto the scene and really made folk music a genre enjoyed by the masses. Inside Llewyn Davis is an honest but brutal snapshot of a struggling musician’s life and a loyal depiction to the harsh realities of pursuing the artistic dream.
As Carey Mulligan’s character, Jean, so harshly put it, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac) is a loser. He is relentlessly devoted to his music that has given him next to no success and relies on sleeping on his friend’s couches every night. The film has us observe a week in the life of Llewyn during the harsh winter of New York at the lowest of times for the musician. Once a duo act, his partner committed suicide and now Llewyn is struggling more than ever to catch a break. On top of that, Jean has informed him that she is pregnant with what might be his baby (or it could be her husband Jim’s, played by Justin Timberlake). The thing is, Llewyn isn’t particularly a sympathetic character. A lot of his difficulties come from his own poor decision making and his surliness keeps us from totally feeling bad for him, yet this gives Inside Llewyn Davis an honest tone and makes the sad reality of this musician’s situation all the more real.
The biggest criticism I have heard about the film from others is that people don’t like how plain depressing it is. I was not around to know what Greenwich Village was like in 1961 or even the feel of the folk music scene during that time period so I am in no position to depict the accuracy of the tone of the movie. However, I believe a movie has a right to depict a more serious tone if that tone is called for and feels true to the situation of the film. In this case, the Coen brothers are depicting an exciting, but difficult, time for music in which folk music was just on the verge of breaking into the mainstream. The plot is difficult to describe because there isn’t any concrete plot. We are merely observing the seemingly pointless wandering of a homeless folk musician who lives from couch to couch. The gloomy cinematography, however beautiful to watch, adds even more to the melancholy tone of the movie. I can understand one not liking these aspects of the film but I found these things were necessary not just for the story but for the theme of the film as a whole.
Being the focus of the film, Oscar Isaac does an amazing job depicting the “struggling musician” by avoiding all of the obvious tropes that come with that role. As mentioned before, we aren’t totally sympathetic towards him due to his stubbornness towards his music and towards other people, but the Coen brothers use simple yet effective instances that exhibit small instances of sympathy towards him. One of these instances that stood out to me was a scene in which Llewyn is sitting at the bar of a diner, drinking his umpteenth cup of coffee just to be out of the cold, and the camera pans down to his feet uncomfortably maneuvering out of his snow soaked shoes. It’s such a simple aspect of the scene that we observe yet we instantly understand what we are supposed to get out of it because we all most likely know the discomfort of walking around in wet socks and shoes. The complexity of Llewyn is what makes this film more than just your average story of a musician looking for a break and what ultimately makes the story so absorbing.
The music, possibly the biggest aspect of the film, is amazing. Isaac performs them perfectly and sings each word as if he truly wrote it himself. We see the passion and sadness on his face and hear it in his voice every time he performs. The film’s main song “Fare Thee Well” is catchy but moving and I can definitely see it getting an Oscar nomination for best original song. Mulligan and Timberlake are great as well with their performances, both musically and otherwise. Mulligan adds some dark humor with her stark hatred for Llewyn’s idleness but exhibits lots of emotion in her performance. Timberlake, John Goodman, and Garrett Hedlund all have smaller roles with only a few scenes but they all add something to the story of Llewyn’s journey. The role that was second most prominent to Llewyn was the cat that he seems to accidentally adopt. A very subtle use of symbol, the cat follows Llewyn throughout his journey and seems to even reflect whatever Llewyn’s present state is. Inside Llewyn Davis displays both the smart script writing and character crafting talents of Joel and Ethan Coen in a way that ultimately makes this downtrodden film a very enjoyable watch.
So yes, this film is not terribly uplifting. In fact, its circular plot in which the Coens decide to end the movie in a way that refers back to the beginning suggests that Llewyn’s life is itself an endless, and sadly pointless, cycle. But great cinema isn’t always meant to uplift and end on a hopeful note because life itself does not always have that hint of hopefulness that people crave in films. With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens aren’t searching to display hope in a folk musician’s depressing predicament, but are instead searching to capture a snippet of reality. With some great performances by Oscar Isaac and supporting actors along with brilliant characters, a great script, and moving folk music, this is a film that proves that reality is something that the Coen brothers do well.