The Coen brothers have become some of the most highly-praised and biggest name filmmakers in the world, with their every release greeted with the same fervor that names like Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Woody Allen once received in the past. And, rather shockingly, they have generally lived up to the hype, producing an excellent body of work that includes few true failures, even if they have not always been as good as, say, Barton Fink (USA/UK 1991) or Blood Simple. (USA 1984). Even by the Coens’ lofty standards, Inside Llewyn Davis has been highly praised, so my expectations were high. As has happened a shocking amount of the time this year, the film really lived up to the hype.
This film purports to spend a few days in the life of Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in 1961 who is barely hanging on to the periphery of the Greenwich Village music scene while seemingly everyone around him is finding ways to success. He’s an angry, self-righteous musician, the sort of “artist” whose face turns to a disapproving scowl as soon as an audience is willing to sing along with a song and subsists only on his friends’ largesse. He’s really an archetypical struggling artist, pushing away everyone who tries to help him, insulting the types of acts that people actually enjoy, and ignoring when the future of music is practically sharing the stage with him because he is so enveloped in his own solipsistic world.
And that selfish view of the world is at the center of Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that really shares its central point with what David Chase was telling us in The Sopranos: people are (or at least Llewyn Davis is) too selfish, proud, and lazy to change, even when the necessary changes are standing right in front of them.
The details of the plot that unfolds around Llewyn Davis really aren’t important for a film that is so much about character development, with the entire plot really being meant as nothing more than a device to elucidate his character. He was part of a duo with Mike Timlin, who would go on to be a pretty good journeyman major league reliever, until Timlin’s suicide left our irascible central character as a reeling solo act playing traditional folk music in a world that only seems to want sweet group harmonies. He isn’t making it on his own, but his ego won’t permit sublimating himself to a group even when he’s given the opportunity, whether through being a part of the hastily-arranged John Glenn Singers recording a simple novelty song or being asked to join a new trio playing the same kind of music he tries to play on his own. He’s not failing for a lack of talent; he’s failing because the world seemingly doesn’t want an act like him.
Only, the world does want a solo folk act, as the film’s incredible ending tells us. Bob Dylan arrives on stage, reminding us that a solo folk singer was just about to become one of the biggest stars in music history. All of the anger and cynicism Llewyn Davis feels in his life could seemingly, if channeled into original music, turn him into the same kind of star, but he’s too busy trying to keep people from entering his world uninvited to notice. While Dylan is on stage changing the world, he’s getting beaten up in an alley for insulting a poor older woman who had the temerity to play some dull music in front of a drunken Llewyn Davis. (Side note: Davis is actually insulting her because he’s angry to discover that he isn’t alone in getting his friend Jean to have sex with him. Llewyn Davis considers himself to be something special, and the idea that he’s not drives his heckling as much as the music and liquor does.)
The Coens show an excellent grasp of narrative structure, building the entire film as a flashback that we don’t know is a flashback before its Dylan revelation, and more importantly show an excellent focus on their point. Davis is shown again and again to be a man too stuck in a rut and too convinced of his own genius to join the future, and the Coens waste no time in subplots that don’t tell us of that. They also use some of their trademark gallows humor—mostly through their on-screen avatar John Goodman—to tell us that Llewyn only has two possible endings: either he becomes the folk version of drugged- and burned-out jazz musician Roland Turner or he follows his friend Mike by throwing himself off a bridge.
The Coens had to turn to a new cinematographer in Bruno Delbonnel, and it seems that the forced change from Roger Deakins served them well, as Delbonnel provided several striking new looks for the Coens. Given the similarities between them, it would have been tempting for the Coens and Deakins to repeat the sepia-toned look of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (UK/France/USA 2000) for this film, but instead they team with Delbonnel for an interesting combination of looks, ranging from the smoke-filled high-contrast lighting of the clubs Llewyn visits to the cavernous, brightly-lit restaurant where he shares a meal with two traveling jazz musicians in Chicago. And all along the way, we are given visual reminders of Llewyn’s world: the hallways in Greenwich Village are all tiny hallways funneling down to the doorways he wants, forcing him to go where he has always gone, while the restaurant in Chicago is so wide open that his presence is easily lost within it. The Coens and Delbonnel have crafted a special film visually, one that easily surpasses just about anything else in recent memory.
The acting throughout the film is excellent, but the only person with a lot to do is Oscar Isaac, who is spellbinding as Llewyn Davis. Not only is his performance stellar in all of the usual ways and his singing and playing excellent, but the way he infuses Llewyn’s performances with his personality is frankly inspired. Where most singing film parts are praised just on the basis of singing ability, Isaac deserves any plaudits he receives because his performance is fully and completely acting, even though he does prove to be quite an excellent musician. The other standouts are the always-excellent John Goodman, playing the Ghost of Llewyn Davises past as he insults everything Davis plays as inferior to his own style of music and Carey Mulligan (still always Sally Sparrow to me), who turns out to be able to play the angry, selfish-in-her-own-way Jean with a level of realism that she could easily have lacked. Nobody other than Isaac really has a lot to do, but everyone fits well and does what is asked excellently.
And of course the music, supervised by T-Bone Burnett and performed mostly by the actors themselves, is a wonder. There are times when the film loses its way a bit because it is too lost in its music to remember its story, but that’s an understandable mistake to make when you have music this good, and a small mistake in any case. The Coens also made the smart and powerful choice of almost entirely eschewing non-diegetic music, giving us a silence to Llewyn’s non-performing world that befits his feeling about it.
All told, Inside Llewyn Davis is an excellent film. It may be a bit longer than it needs to be because of its fascination with its own music, but it’s excellent in all aspects and undoubtedly worth seeing.