Llewyn Davis (Isaac) is singer plying his trade in the proto-hipster folk scene of Greenwich Village. Davis exists crashing on the floors of long suffering friends, and fellow musicians, whilst scraping a playing gigs and releasing the occasional record. Over one week he endures a perfect storm of crises as his disagreeable personality, bad luck and refusal to brook artistic compromise brings him to the brink of ruin.
An intimate portrait of the artist as douche bag Inside Llewyn Davis hides hidden depths. It appears to be a quirky comedy but has a wicked heart. It’s easy to forget that this is only a week in Davis’ life and assume he has always been this disagreeable, but the slack that his long-suffering friends grant him suggests it may not always have been so. Davis’ misanthropy is rooted in a disgust for the music scene in which he plies his trade, and a personal tragedy revealed so subtly its significance may pass some viewers by. However, his character is significantly flawed, particularly in his relationships with women. This is reflected in the fierce contempt with which Jean Berkley (Mulligan) holds him, although she is at pains to hide this from singing partner and husband Jim (Timberlake) for reasons that become quickly apparent.
Authenticity is something that has long been an obsession for music critics (example: the NME used to regularly berate Nick Cave for not being literally a character from a Flannery O’Connor novel) and The Greenwich Village folk scene as portrayed here is blatantly inauthentic. Sea shanties and traditional European folk songs being sung by educated, middle class, urbanites. Davis appears no different to the artists he clearly despises, but in fact his family has a history that gives context to his art. When he sings it is with the soul, grace and beauty that he tragically lacks offstage.
The music (overseen by T Bone Burnett) is fantastic. A fair number of songs are performed in their entirety sung live by the cast. One particular scene in which Davis sings solo in an empty club to a stoney-faced music promoter is simply heartbreaking, both in terms of the song itself and for its significance in the story.
Performances are as well pitched and eccentric as one would should expect from a Coen brothers film. Mulligan and Timberlake are great (it’s great to hear Mulligan singing again after Shame), John Goodman does a star turn as a Dr John-a-like jazz musician, and a near unrecognisable Garrett Hedlund appears as a monosyllabic beat poet. However, it is the (at time of writing) less well known Oscar Isaac who must carry the film as Llewyn Davis, and he does this superbly with a brilliant performance that makes a fundamentally unlikable man a compelling screen presence.
Loosely inspired by musician Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, the Coens make this early sixties world feel remarkably contemporary. Period details are convincing but by setting the film in the cold of winter the visuals (beautifully captured by Bruno Delbonnel) have a desaturated monochrome quality quite different to the richly stylised look of Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink. Like No Country For Old Men’s relationship to the nineteen eighties, Inside Llewyn Davis and its characters seem to belong to the now, rather than an idealised past.
Regardless of the fact that the mise-en-scene is far more naturalistic, Inside Llewyn Davis has many parallels with Barton Fink. Fink and Davis are both spiky, difficult to like characters brought low by a refusal to compromise. Nonetheless, where it felt like the Coen’s solidly sided with Fink against the evils of the Hollywood Studio system, Inside Llewyn Davis is more ambiguous. The film does not paint Davis’ unwavering dedication to ‘integrity’ in a wholly positive light. It is obvious this has ruined his relationships and possibly his life. At several key moments Davis is presented with key choices, he always takes the wrong fork on the road.
Top tier Coen Brothers.
This review was originally published on the Verite Film Magazine blog http://www.veritefilmmag.com