Joel and Ethan Coen are an anomaly among filmmakers. Rarely can a creative team make so many acclaimed films that share so many similar parts but can be so different from one another.
While they have a shortlist of people who seem to be in every one of their movies (John Goodman, Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi), they’ve also shown that they are adept at switching styles and genres at the blink of an eye, whether it be black comedy (Fargo, Burn After Reading), Crime (Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing), or Western (No Country For Old Men, True Grit).
Their art is complete yet concise, with all but one of their films clocking in at under two hours (No Country being the exception). Inside Llewyn Davis finds them in a different, somber mindset, however. It’s still unmistakably a Coen Brothers film (Hi, John Goodman), but it’s melancholy, visually striking, and eminently likable and relatable due to its lead.
The movie takes place during a one week period of the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac), a folk singer in the 1960s Greenwich Village. Judging by that description, it’s easy to imagine what his life is probably like, which is to say, an unfulfilled mess. He drifts from apartment to apartment playing in dimly lit clubs while dealing with the suicide of his partner and unintentionally giving everyone around him new reasons to hate him. His ex-girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) is apparently pregnant with his child, and he’s also stuck with one of his friends cats, since he can never find an opportune time to return it.
In his journey, he collaborates with Jean’s boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake) on a song, and joins two musicians (John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund) on their way to Chicago. But the film actually has the supporting cast take a major backseat for a change, with many of them only appearing for a short time. Rightfully so, as it is Llewyn’s story, which is where the strength of the film lies.
Llewyn is relatable to everyone, artist or not, because everyone has at one point felt his struggle. A character like this has the potential to be rather unlikable, but Issac’s performance keeps him within the audience’s sympathy. His life is a constant downward spiral, but apart from a few specific scenes, he keeps himself together in a dark, sardonic way. He’s an artist who is actually in it for the art, and the reason he hasn’t seen success is because he isn’t willing to sell out like his peers have, a fact exemplified by the scene where Llewyn and Jim record the song “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” a protest song about the space program, of all things, meant as just a quick cash for which he sacrifices his integrity just so he can survive.
Visually, the film is striking. Much of the color is taken away to create an almost sepia tone, which fits the bleak, melancholy atmosphere of the movie. It’s a lot like Nebraska, another beautiful, visually striking but hard to read film from 2013. The morals of Nebraska, however, might have been intentional due to the setting and the characters, but Llewyn’s seems slightly more complex due to the subtlety of the visuals, characters, and the ending, which basically accomplishes nothing.
Being a Coen Brothers film, the soundtrack deserves some praise. It finds them collaborating with producer T-Bone Burnett once again, who helped them make one of the most successful soundtracks of all time with O Brother, Where Art Thou? Much like O Brother, folk music is prevalent through the soundtrack, featuring a mix of re-recorded folk classics and original material, including “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” as mentioned above. And of course no modern day folk record would be complete without a dash of Mumford. Marcus Mumford (who happens to married to Carey Mulligan) is featured on a couple songs and is also the singing voice of Llewyn’s deceased partner, adding serious folk credibility to the experience.
Inside Llewyn Davis would be nothing without its lead and atmosphere, which contribute so much to having us feel what Llewyn is going through. The Coens, in their usual sardonic way, tell a tale of how disappointingly bad, and against all odds, things happen to good people.