From their whole remarkable back catalogue (which includes more than one personal favourite for me), 2009’s A Serious Man is the only Coen brothers’ film that I just couldn’t connect with, though I’d still rank it higher than Intolerable Cruelty. On the surface, Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens’ latest effort, bears some resemblance to A Serious Man. Both are sixties-set period pieces centring on unfortunate male protagonists, filmed in washed-out colours. Inside Llewyn Davis is another of their more esoteric endeavours, but thankfully also feels accessible in a way that A Serious Man wasn’t. This is not entirely down to Inside Llewyn Davis being a musical, though that’s certainly a contributing factor.
Who is Llewyn Davis then? While loosely inspired by one, he wasn’t a real person, though probably could have been (he’s not actually a Welshman either). Set amongst the New York folk revival scene in 1961, Llewyn is a musician who’s practically homeless, scrounging off various friends for a couch to sleep on every night, while trying to make money performing his music. At every step of the way, Llewyn is struck down, either by rejection, his own poor judgement, or plain bad luck. Like many Coen characters, life is not kind to Llewyn Davis.
Now Llewyn himself is not too great of a person either mind you, his often quietly abrasive personality has resulted in him having very few friends, even his sister doesn’t want him around much, and he constantly sabotages himself will ill-thought, knee-jerk responses to the situations he finds himself in. Despite this, we are always able to sympathise with Llewyn, he’s more complicated than many ‘struggling artist’ characters have been, he doesn’t want to ‘sell-out’, but will take any gig he can for money, and the Coens avoid the route to make him a simplistic genius musician / terrible human being type. He’s got talent to be sure, but he’s no Mozart (Amadeus star F. Murray Abraham does briefly appear though), and one of his most immediately caustic outbursts can be attributed to a recent tragedy in his life.
To inhabit the role of Llewyn, the Coens have found a perfect match in Drive star Oscar Issac, here really breaking out of supporting roles with a chance to demonstrate not only his ability to lead a film (he’s in practically every scene) but also his musicianship, with a several solo numbers. As expected the Coens also have a number of memorable supporting roles, mostly utilising new actors, with John Goodman being the only Coen regular to appear. Goodman plays the film’s most obviously comedic character, an arrogant jazz musician who eloquently disrespects anyone he deems below him, but even he has a darker side.
I tend to prefer the Coen’s more outright comedies, and this is definitely more of a drama, adopting a melancholic tone throughout, but is also peppered with sparks of humour. None of these ever feel at odds with the more weighty themes of the movie, and can even land big laughs, it contains the single greatest use of the word ‘scrotum’ in a film I can ever recall. Inside Llewyn Davis might not be as obviously quotable as some earlier Coen works, it still has many other memorable and significant pieces of dialogue (“he connects with people”).
Llewyn Davis’s journey is not too heavy on plot, at one point taking a long diversion only end up back where he started, but the film never feels meandering or unfocussed as it presents a portrait of Llewyn’s life. Everything that happens holds interest.
As for the songs themselves, the Coens have employed O, Brother Where Art Thou/The Big Lebowski soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett to bring a number of traditional folk songs to new life. All of these are presented in full, often in long takes, and they work brilliantly. Though the film will hold more appeal if one already enjoys this type of folk music, Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t require this. It’s not in any way an excuse to just showcase these songs either, every musical number has relevance, adding depth and understanding to the characters.
Inside Llewyn Davis is another unique and endlessly fascinating film from the Coen brothers, a musical character study steeped in symbolism. It has similarities to their more cryptic works, and will doubtless reveal more upon repeat viewings, but after just one is still a richly satisfying experience.