The milieu of Inside Llewyn Davis wraps around the Coen Brothers and their audience like a cozy sweater in the dead of winter. Watching it is akin to sitting down with an old friend you haven’t seen for years during the holidays, perhaps with hot tea or coffee cupped in your chapped hands, a fireplace hopefully roaring nearby, and listening to them tell a story…maybe one you’ve heard before, maybe one that seems new only to reveal the classic themes of your lives, and you’re held wrapt, comfortable, and full of bittersweet feelings.
The film, which chronicles the ups and – well, let’s be honest – primarily downs of gallows humor-laden folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, perfectly melancholy and full of piss and heartache), is bathed in the soft muted glows and dark greys of wintertime and 1960’s New York City, strung up wall to wall with amazing folk tunes, and filled to the brim with opportunities and love lost. The Coens, who previously found their hearts tied to music with their blue-grass fueled Southern-fried odyssey O’ Brother Where Art Thou? have never had their love of music tied more closely to their themes – the film (like all of their best films, lest we forget the homespun folksy wisdom of Fargo) is itself a kind of folk song. There are hints of an odyssey here, too, as Llewyn flounders about from place to place struck with bad luck, bad timing and a perpetual failing when it comes to life’s big decisions, and he finds a bit of a kindred animal spirit in a series of cats who cross his path on their own odysseys through life, and one of the felines is not coincidently named Ulysses.
The film opens and closes in cyclical fashion with Llewyn’s rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the famous Gaslight Café. In between he gets caught up in a love triangle (that never really was a triangle, just a mistake) with the more popular and commercially promising folk duo Jim & Jean (played in pitch perfect fashion by a remarkably calm Justin Timberlake and a piss and vinegar version of the unfathomably cute and internally spitfire Carey Mulligan), has his lights decked out (twice? forever?) by a man in black hat in an alley, is berated by his sister, bounces from couch to couch in Greenwich Village, and takes a surreal road trip to Chicago with a chain-smoking beat poet named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and a pompous jazz musician named Roland Turner (played with hot air gusto in perfect fashion by frequent Coen cohort John Goodman). All along a ghost hangs over the film, Llewyn’s former singing partner we know only by name and one song (“Fare Thee Well”) as Mike, who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge not too long ago. “People should throw themselves off the Brooklyn Bridge not the George Washington Bridge,” Roland Turner muses with a poignant heartlessness.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen Brothers most honest film in quite some time. There’s no sense of judgment here or any hints of farce. They allow their characters to make their sweet music and let the audience luxuriate in the dulcet tones. The pacing, the tone, the cinematography (from Coen Brothers first-timer Bruno Delbonnel), the editing, the sound design, the acting, the music…everything is spot on, polished, professional – their most fully realized period and mood piece since they made a kind of folk song out of 1930’s gangster films with Miller’s Crossing – hard to believe – nearly 25 years ago.
Meanwhile, Llewyn has scripted banter after the end of his performances where he says, “If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” You could say the same thing about a great Coen Brothers film. Inside Llewyn Davis is certainly one of those.
Written by David H. Schleicher