“What does the ‘N’ stand for?”
Inside Llewyn Davis is another latter day gem from the Coen brothers. Coming straight off the success of 2010 western remake True Grit, this film finds them exploring the pre-folk explosion music scene in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.
Oscar Isaac plays the titular character, a down-on-his-luck folk singer earning just enough to keep him going from couch to couch, while he chases a lucky break. The Coens paint a painfully bleak picture of New York heading into winter, as life and responsibility begin to take their toll on Llewyn.
The soundtrack, produced by the Coens with T. Bone Burnett, is, as usual, superb. The starting point for the character of Llewyn Davis is Dave Van Ronk, a contemporary of Bob Dylan, and so the soundtrack features several songs associated with Van Ronk, many of which are performed by Isaac. The cover of Davis’ poorly selling solo album, the Inside Llewyn Davis from the title, is a direct replica of Van Ronk’s album Inside Dave Van Ronk, minus the peeking cat, and the film strikes just the right balance of Davis just missing out on stardom as Van Ronk did. Right place, wrong time.
It has been reported that the Coens view the music of Inside Llewyn Davis as a direct descendant of the music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s not hard to hear this connection: there’s definitely a country folk / travelling tale ethos in the songwriting; pure folk from the well, before folk-rock muddied the water. The music is so beautiful, and well performed, that it’s almost heartbreaking to see a despondent Davis catch a glimpse of Dylan in the film’s closing scene. The folk music world is about to turn on its axis, and Llewyn Davis, like Dave Van Ronk, is not going to be at the forefront of the charge.
I’m a huge fan of True Grit and The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, but Inside Llewyn Davis is definitely my favourite of the Coens’ output from this decade. Hail, Caesar! didn’t do anything for me, and we’re unlikely to see another film from them until their adaption of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Coen-alumn / spouse Frances McDormand, which is only in pre-production at the time of writing.
It is the bleak and gloomy atmosphere of Inside Llewyn Davis that resonates with me the most. This onslaught of misery only lets up for a brief couple of minutes when Davis is contracted to play and sing on a studio session – the side-splitting novelty song Please Mr. Kennedy – alongside Justin Timberlake’s effervescent Jim Berkey and Adam Driver’s no-nonsense Al Cody. It’s the film’s rare moment of illumination, and potentially a lucky break for our protagonist, but his circumstances dictate that he takes a one-off payment for the work, thereby writing off any chances of receiving any of the song’s eventual royalties.
Like a lot of the Coens’ work, the film has a weird streak running through it: the elusive ginger cat echoes the peeling wallpaper of Barton Fink or the pencil-strewn anxiety of Jerry Lundegaard’s falsified loan form in Fargo; a small obsession that ultimately means nothing. And perhaps most interesting of all, the Coens’ mastery of character and narrative expertly maneuvers an unseen character in the film: the cruel hand of fate that leads Llewyn Davis in one direction and opens the door to somebody else.
Hit: Hang Me, Oh Hang Me – Oscar Isaac
Hidden Gem: Please Mr. Kennedy – Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac & Adam Driver