What the American public wants in the theatre is a tragedy with a happy ending. I wish I’d thought of that line but it belongs to the author and literary critic William Dean Howell. If Mr Howell was alive today, he’d be chuffed with Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that embraces failure in a beautiful way.
In 1961, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer playing bars in Greenwich Village, New York City. Davis is distraught after the death of his musical partner and his solo record is not selling. With no money or career prospects, Davis resorts to sleeping on the couches of friends and acquaintances while attempting to salvage his career.
From the ground floor of the American folk movement the Coens’ tap into the ultimate story of the man that never was. We meet Davis for the first time in a simple setting with a guitar, a microphone and the character soulfully bearing himself to a crowd of shadows caressed by cigarette smoke. What’s clear in the opening scene is that Davis is good, damn good. From the talent on show it’s perceived that Davis is successful but the Coens’ slowly slide you into his downtrodden lifestyle of couch surfing, defusing confrontations with angry former lovers (look out for a wonderfully feisty Carey Mulligan) and wavering opportunities in favour of a quick buck. The superficial tale of a struggling musician — you know the one, rags to riches – is quickly squashed. Davis’ woes slowly start to resonate and the Coens’ intricately lace the narrative with personal insights and revelations designed to explain why the character isn’t sitting in a mansion surrounded by gold records or even gullible enough to buy into his own hype. Davis is the real deal, a man out of time who sits in a crowd and can’t fathom why other performers are gaining momentum with their careers. He’s haunted by a former musical partnership, passing other failed acts in the night and left nursing the wounds of misfortune. The Coens’ examine Davis’ condition as a man clouded by depression, and their intention is aided by moody visuals from cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, who washes out any trace of happiness by using faded colours and heavy greys to represent the fog of discontent blanketing Davis’ world. Inside Llewyn Davis is a master class in a recent run of films focusing on emotionally wounded characters such as Frances Ha, Blue Jasmine and Silver Linings Playbook. The unexpected part of the experience is the incredible wave of comfort that comes from Davis’ battered journey. No matter how bad it gets, there is another day, another stage and another chance for Davis to try again. Never is the character suddenly reborn as an improved person; a credit to the Coens’ scripting and delivering a wonderfully honest account of a knockabout character.
There is so much to still to sift through and I haven’t even mentioned the cat. Throughout Inside Llewyn Davis there is a cat that accompanies Davis after he accidentally lets it out of a friend’s apartment. The significance of the feline is worthy of an entire separate review and a thesis. The Coens’ use a ridiculously cute ginger cat as a totem for Davis’ emotional journey. The animal is a troublemaker, a rolling stone, a reflection of his folk singing companion. The age of theorising about the Inside Llewyn Davis cat has just begun, and it’s sure to keep people deep in conversation for years to come. It adds to the sumptuous mystique of the film.
The beating heart of Inside Llewyn Davis is the luscious songbook constructed by executive music producer T-Bone Burnett and performed beautifully by the cast as well as Marcus Mumford (of the band Mumford and Sons) who represents Davis’ missing partner. Each song cuts to the core of each character and propels the narrative forward in a sublime way. The Coens’ know who to elicit emotion with a perfectly placed piece of music and when to have fun. A scene where Davis contributes to an Apollo era novelty song called ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ is nothing but pure joy. The scene is amplified by the performances of Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver ramping up the kookiness in that special Coen brothers kind of way.
As the credits roll you’ll notice that it’s Isaac’s voice on most the music and it’s one of many outstanding elements of a sublime performance. Isaac imbues Davis with an abrasive nature that never falls on the side of malice; you’re watching a good natured guy who is worn out. Of course, most of Davis’ problems are self inflicted; often the result of a cycle of bad decision making, and Issac conveys the frustration with a reserved rage. The actor engulfs Davis with sorrow and his eyes look like two tiny water balloons ready to burst. The character remains composed for most of the film and Isaac wears all the hardships well.
The supporting cast is layered with terrific appearances from Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett who play the Gorfeins, friends, cat owners and kind folks who are forgiving of Davis’ mood swings. John Goodman is unforgettable as a confrontational travelling musician named Roland Turner, and Garret Hedlund gives off an air of danger and mystery as Roland’s personal driver. Jeanine Serralles is terrific as Davis’ sister and the constant voice of reason while F. Murray Abraham and Jerry Grayson play music reps that are so candid it hurts.
Inside Llewyn Davis is masterfully told story and a transcendent piece of filmmaking from the Coen brothers.
Cameron Williams – follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies