The Coen Brothers’ latest offering, Inside Llewyn Davis, takes them to Greenwich Village, circa 1961. We follow Llewyn Davis, a down-on-his-luck folk singer who couch surfs and just can’t catch a break. Inside Llewyn Davis takes place over the course of about a week, but by the looks of it things have sucked for Davis for a long time, and they’ll continue to if he doesn’t get a grip on his life.
Davis is played by Oscar Isaac, a relative unknown who’s been relegated to supporting roles or less in Drive, The Nativity Story, The Bourne Legacy, Robin Hood and Sucker Punch, among others.
It’s his first – of many to come, I’m sure – lead role; he appears in every scene in Inside Llewyn Davis and he’s tremendous throughout. Isaac does his own singing and playing in the movie, which T-Bone Burnett – an Oscar winner for Crazy Heart‘s “The Weary Kind” and repeat collaborator with the Coens, having done music for their The Ladykillers and O Brother Where Art Thou? – produced the music for.
Llewyn Davis is a jerk. He’s talented. But he’s a jerk nonetheless, and one who is difficult to work with and ungrateful for the little work he does end up getting. When his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) offers him a paying job singing back-up vocals on a track, Davis can’t help but feel – and express – he is above the song. “I’m happy for the gig,” he says, “but who wrote this?” The great “Please Mr. Kennedy” scene below:
Inside Llewyn Davis is dark, even by Coen standards. It’s not darkly funny, like their films sometimes can be (although there are a few laughs, like pretty much any line of Carey Mulligan’s scorned and fed-up Jean, and some of John Goodman’s appearance). Inside Llewyn Davis is a character study of a man so relentless, he would rather be unhappy, poor, hated and freezing than give up on his art and music. He can’t just “exist,” he tells his sister.
“I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul,” Llewyn is told when asked to perform at a friend’s house. He’s not sure anymore. For him it’s a job.
The Coen Brothers repertoire includes a lot of great films, but I don’t know that any cuts as deeply and subtly as Inside Llewyn Davis. At least none do for me. There’s a rawness and realness in Llewyn Davis that really spoke to me. Llewyn is stuck in a rut. Even his attempts at starting completely fresh are made impossible – very rarely by others, it’s always by his decisions, the relationships he’s tarnished, money and life. Llewyn is just waiting (and waiting, and waiting, and waiting) for his ship to come in. You’d think the mundanity of waiting for something to happen would hurt Inside Llewyn Davis, but the film is compelling even – or especially – when it depresses.
Inside Llewyn Davis opened in Montreal on Christmas Day. It’s playing at Cinema du Parc, Cineplex Forum, Excentris and Quartier Latin.