Combine the tone of No Country for Old Men, the Odyssey theme of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and put it all in 60s Greenwich Village, and you have Inside Llewyn Davis. Joel and Ethan’s first film in three years is somewhat different than their previous works, but recognizable enough as a Coen Brothers film. The result is a dark character study about – to paraphrase Oscar Wilde – a man in the gutter looking at the stars. It’s not quite on the level of the Coens’ best, but it’s a solid film in its own way.
The film does not follow a particular narrative. Rather, it is a look into the week of the titular Llewyn Davis, (Oscar Isaac) a talented but struggling, directionless musician making a mini-odyssey through 1961 Greenwich Village. Homeless, he couch-surfs at various friends’ dwellings. He wants to make a living as a folk singer, but is too proud to compromise – a major obstacle in his life. Llewyn has managed to piss off most of his friends and associates before the movie even begins, like folk duo Jan and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) or Llewyn’s useless manager Mel (Jerry Grayson, in his final role). Llewyn heads to Chicago to meet a potential new manager (F. Murray Abraham), and in the process encounters curmudgeon jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman). A recurring plot point is Llewyn losing a friend’s cat and spending much of the film trying to find and return him.
Llewyn himself is a composite of several folk singers, most notably the influential but oft-forgotten Dave Van Ronk. Loose elements of the story and the strong sense of place are adapted from Van Ronk’s posthumous autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. (It should be noted that this film is not a biography of Van Ronk himself.)
The film contains all the tropes we expect from the Coens – characters repeating lines, the odd deliberately unresolved storyline, slightly offbeat characters, and people trying to communicate despite being on different wavelengths.
It also features some significant differences – only one of the Coens’ regular stable of actors (John Goodman) makes an appearance, and the film is more of a week-in-the-life style than it is a tight narrative. While the former is not much of a distraction, the latter is perhaps the film’s weakest point – Coen films are normally tightly pieced together in such a way that no scene or dialogue feels superfluous, Inside Llewyn Davis features a few scenes that feel like they could be shortened or even excised. The film was also focused entirely on one character, new territory for the Coen brothers. While Isaac’s performance was strong, this did at times cost us the chance to explore other quirky Coen characters.
There are no bad performances in the film. This is Oscar Isaac’s first leading role. It’s a big one – he’s in literally every scene in the film – but he manages to carry the film on his shoulders without breaking a sweat. Carey Mulligan is a delightful as always, even when she’s bitter. I was initially skeptical that Justin Timberlake could pull off such a low-key role, but he put in what may be his best performance yet. I could write on and on about how John Goodman is a show stealer, but I’ll keep it short by paraphrasing Jon Stewart – Goodman never sucks in anything.
The music is central to the story, and it’s everything you’d want out of a film like this. The soundtrack was produced by T-Bone Burnett – a noted Coen contributor – and his expertise at handling traditional music of all kinds shows on every track. We are also never cheated out of a song. When a character starts playing a song, we are shown the entire performance of that song without cutaways, and seldom with any characters interrupting. This is especially effective in scenes taking place in the Gaslight, making the viewer feel like they are sitting there in the crowded bar with everyone else, mesmerized by who was on stage. It’s the anti-Taking Woodstock.
Each actor sang and performed their own songs. Musically astute viewers will notice small traits that emphasize this, such Llewyn’s long fingernails on his right hand – a common trait among finger picking guitarists. Indeed, the strength of most of the performances is anchored by solid musical performance. Every singing actor – Isaac, Mulligan, and even Timberlake – look, act, and most importantly sound like Village-based folk singers. Isaac in particular stands out – a comparison of his music to Van Ronk’s shows that he matches Van Ronk note-for-note.
Much like how New York City was the true star of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, the folk-saturated world that was 1961 Greenwich Village deserved top billing. Everything was recreated to a proverbial tee – the narrow hallways, the crowded yet subdued crowds of the Gaslight, the small army of folk singers of varying degrees of success trying to survive gig to gig. To double check the accuracy, I asked an expert: my father, Peter, who frequented the Village during this era, saw Dave Van Ronk perform, and visited the Gaslight on a few occasions. The verdict: particularly accurate.
While this film is unlikely to go down as one of the Coens’ all time greats (alongside Fargo and The Big Lebowski, for example), Inside Llewyn Davis is still a solid film for fans of the Coens and folk music alike. It’s got heart, humor, and good music. Just be sure to go in knowing that it’s a character study with a loose story. Let it be a time machine. You’ll probably like it more the more you think about it.