A richly evocative portrayal of the early-1960s Greenwich Village folk music scene and a nuanced lead performance by Miami-bred Oscar Isaac turn the Coens’ latest character study into one of the year’s best films
The times, they’re about to start a-changin’, but the homeless sad sack with the chronic bad luck, self-destructive tendencies and dreamy singing voice at the heart of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis appears to be living inside a broken record.
When we first see him, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is bathed in a silver spotlight, belting out “Hang Me, O Hang Me” inside the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village. The year is 1961, and folk music is on the verge of becoming very popular, though not quite yet. Surely someone as gifted as this singer with the brooding demeanor and matching disheveled hair can make a go at a successful music career. As we gradually find out, most, if not all, of Llewyn’s misfortunes are of his own making.
Sounds like quite the downer, doesn’t it? Not the way the Coens see it. They’ve taken shopworn, showbiz-biography subject matter and spun it into a cleverly plotted portrait of a struggling bohemian with a boulder on his shoulder and a stubborn conviction that he’ll be able to achieve the fame that remains tantalizingly out of reach. Instead of focusing on his me-against-the-world quest to find his place in the pop-culture firmament, Inside Llewyn Davis is, more than anything else, a movie about routine and repetition over the course of an eventful week for the struggling artist. The narrow hallways leading up to a place where Llewyn can crash for the night. The endless subway rides to and from another unpleasant conversation with the people in his life. Most of whom – how should I put this delicately – don’t particularly hold him in high esteem.
Take Jean (Carey Mulligan), for instance. The fellow folkie with the angelic vocals has recently discovered she is with child, which complicates matters with Jim (Justin Timberlake), her current partner in music (and life), since there’s a (very strong) possibility Llewyn, a former flame, might be the daddy. “Everything you touch turns to shit, like King Midas’ idiot brother,” she hisses at him. He doesn’t fare that much better with his resentful older sister, who wonders when he’s going to try to find a real job. And then there’s the orange cat, a beatnik Garfield belonging to Mitch and Lillian Gorfein, intellectuals with a thing for encouraging burgeoning talent, even those who constantly screw up and shut out those closest to them. Llewyn locks himself out of kitty’s apartment with no way of getting back inside, so the feline becomes his accidental companion, as well as an inventive narrative device the Coens employ to help structure the film.
And then there’s the music, an exquisitely rendered grab-bag of traditional folk songs and one new ditty, “Please Mr. President,” that Llewyn records with Jim in the only scene set inside a recording studio. The Coens, for the most part, allow the songs to play uninterrupted, which one would think would bog the movie down, but the risky decision pays off big time. “It never gets old when it’s a folk song,” Llewyn tells his audience, and he’s right.
You think you have an idea where Inside Llewyn Davis is heading, but as the movie unfolded before me, humorous yet melancholy, I stopped taking notes and became immersed in its protagonist’s existential quandary. Isaac doesn’t beg for our sympathies, but he discovers so many layers in Llewyn that I found it impossible to share the other characters’ contempt. Llewyn might be fighting a losing battle, even when he crosses paths with Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), an influential Chicago-based club owner in a position to open doors for him, but I never stopped hoping for a little sunshine to dissolve that dark cloud hanging over his head. It doesn’t hurt, naturally, that the camera’s awfully fond of the Cuban/Guatemalan actor, which lets him get away with turning the self-centered, prickly Llewyn into a sympathetic figure against our better judgment.
Even though this is Isaac’s show, the Coens pepper the film with a colorful assortment of supporting characters, including the Gorsteins, quiet drifter Johnny Five (On the Road’s Garrett Hedlund) and the shady, eccentric Roland Turner (Coens regular John Goodman), who commands the screen as if he’d just come out of the pages of a William Burroughs book. They also never allow the impeccable production values – Bruno Delbonnel’s chiaroscuro camerawork, Jess Gonchor’s meticulous production design – from overwhelming the story. All the elements fall into place with pitch-perfect command of the medium, and the end result, as is often the case with the Coens’ work, will probably benefit from repeat viewings. The film, which often brings to mind their 1991 playwright-in-Hollywood yarn Barton Fink, also shows the No Country for Old Men auteurs continuing to grow and evolve.
Inside Llewyn Davis debuts in South Florida Dec. 20 at several area theaters, including the Coral Gables Art Cinema (http://gablescinema.com), which is the ideal venue for this film.