I just walked out of the Coen Brothers’ new release, Inside Llewyn Davis, and I have to say, I’m not quite sure what to think. But I know how I feel. The film, a slightly comedic but mostly tragic tale of a folk singer’s survival in the early 60s, gives you a hopeless feeling, a consciousness of whatever it is that weighs on your shoulders (and life). I can’t for one instant say it’s a bad film, quite the contrary, but it’s a heavy flick, and at times pretty bleak. In short, Inside Llewyn Davis leaves me pensive and quiet.
The film centers on the titular Davis, a struggling, young folk singer trying to make it during a crushing Manhattan winter in 1961. He hops from couch to couch, hardly able to stay in good favor with the folks he crashes with. Hardly an empathetic character, he’s his own worst enemy with his agent, friends, and fellow musicians (but his music is damn good). In pure Coen Brothers fashion, the film begins with many things going wrong for good ol’ Llewyn; he’s knocked up his best friend’s girl, he can’t pay any sort of rent, and he’s charged with looking after an escaped cat. All that, and he’s struggling with the death of his former musical partner (leaving him unable to play as anything but a solo act).
Oscar Isaac, who plays Llewyn, is incredible as the egocentric, brooding musician. His portrayal makes you want to feel for the guy, but it’s hard to with all the bad decisions Davis seems to make. Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake play Jean and Jim Berkey, two friends of Davis’ and musicians as well. Mulligan is awesome as an American Greenwich Village dweller, the best parts of the film being her tearing Davis a new one for knocking her up. Timberlake is hardly featured, but he’s charming when he’s onscreen. John Goodman makes a brief appearance in the very dark, very weird middle of the film, portraying a crazy jazz musician with all kinds of problems. Garrett Hedlund plays his valet (also a beat poet), and although he hardly speaks, when he does it’s pretty eerie.
So, the cast is very solid. Isaac, Mulligan, and Timberlake all perform their own songs, Isaac beautifully playing full folk tunes continuously throughout the film. All of the music is impressively done (the film makes you want to binge on folk songs for many hours after), and there’s even a musical surprise at the end, but music alone does not make a great movie. The rest of the film falls just a note or two short, the actors and their musical talents carrying a plot that isn’t really there (an intentional move by the Coens, but not always done to the best effect).
Overall, though, the film is a must see. It’s still a Coen Brothers’ flick after all, and the individual performances are all fantastic. The end product, though, is a little dreary and undecided, aesthetically driving home its messages (things repeat themselves, music operates on another plane, all roads lead back home, etc.) with no fixed narrative at all. I understand the Coens wanted to make another film about personal failures and inevitable disappointment (see A Serious Man or Barton Fink), and I enjoy their story following more or less the roads Llewyn is willing to take in his uncompromising mission to find success as a solo musician. In the end though, Inside Llewyn Davis lacks what Llewyn himself does: serious direction and a sense of harmony with itself (but remember, friends, it’s still a pretty damn fine film).