A simple tale of a folk singer’s struggle for recognition belies the myriad of metaphors behind this wonderfully humorous, miserable and melancholic story.
Folkin’ Brilliant by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The Coen brothers’ latest film is an idiosyncratic insight into the decline of one man’s aspirations against the backdrop of the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. It’s a cautionary tale about missed opportunities and the frail, translucent nature of talent. Giving new meaning to the term ‘suffering for your art’, Inside Llewyn Davis likens the gruelling pursuit of artistic recognition to a kick in the gut and a sharp punch to the nose in the back alley of opportunity. Featuring a wonderfully dour central performance from Oscar Isaac, it’s a beautiful yet elusive odyssey that celebrates the ebb and flow of musical creativity.
In the thick of an unrelentingly bitter winter, Inside Llewyn Davis follows a week in the life of folk singer, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he navigates the coal face of his crumbling career. Living hand-to-mouth and sleeping from couch to couch, Llewyn is a self-obsessed misery guts, a quagmire of despair and negativity. Haunted by the death of his former bandmate, and the subsequent failure of their debut album, he is disillusioned by a folk scene that continues to overlook him as an artist. But when he realises that his contemporaries are enjoying the success that he strives for, he sets out to Chicago to audition for a revered musical promoter.
Establishing an ominous sense of catastrophe from the opening shot, Inside Llewyn Davis begins with the folk singer regaling a faceless audience with a less than cheery rendition of Dave Von Ronk’s (on which Llewyn is loosely based) Hang me, Oh Hang Me. Within five minutes Llewyn finds himself summoned outside of the Gaslight Café where a faceless stranger beats him up for reasons which only become apparent later. It’s the perfect way to start a film chronicling the misfortune of a young folk singer who feels an acute sense of isolation as a result of his untapped talent. The injustice of his anonymity is humourously juxtaposed with the success of those he views as lesser contemporaries – or as Llewyn sees them, conformists. In a scene that highlights Llewyn’s disdain for folk pop, dullard acquaintance Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) invites him to Colombia Records to play guitar on his new single, Please Mr Kennedy. Llewyn’s incredulous reaction to the lyrics is one of the film’s funniest moments and represents one of many scenes that elevates the film from the gloom of his wayward journey.
Criminally ignored by the Academy, the Coens’ screenplay creates an exquisite balance between the light and dark sides of narrative. Llewyn’s relationship with the Gorfeins’ (played by Ethan Phillips & Robin Bartlett) cat Ulysses is particularly endearing; a clever narrative ploy to paint Llewyn in a positive light while conversely highlighting his selfish indifference to absolutely everyone else. Llewyn is a self-aggrandising musical misanthrope, who blames his permanent stasis on everyone else but himself. At one point, friend and sometime lover Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan) challenges this assertion by pointing out “everything you touch turns to shit – like King Midas’ idiot brother”. Isaac’s performance comes to the fore in these scenes of confrontation; you sense that under the façade of indifference, Llewyn doesn’t need to be reminded that he is frequently the architect of his own misfortune.
The story culminates in a failed audition in front of nightclub owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) in Chicago – the irony of which is that the same manager on which Grossman is based moved to New York soon after and went on to discover the embodiment of ’60s folk music, Bob Dylan. The beauty of setting the film in this period of flux is that there is an acute sense that you are witnessing something quietly momentous in the background of Llewyn’s ramblings. Cleverly alluded to in the final scene of the film, Inside Llewyn Davis is a eulogy to a whole generation of musicians that were left beaten and bloodied by the music industry as well as a celebration of the era to come. Bathed in melancholy, the stunning cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is in itself an enchanting ode to the period.
A sterling supporting cast round out another worthy entry into the list of Coen brothers’ A-grade films; from John Goodman’s painfully funny beatnick Roland Turner, Garrett Hedlund’s aptly named Johnny Five (because he utters about five words) and Justin Timberlake’s tedious and under-utilised Jim Berkey. Mulligan is also a fierce and worthy antagonist to the obnoxious and self-aggrandising Llewyn. Special mention to Adam Driver of HBO’s Girls who turns in one of the more unusual and hilarious scene-stealing performances I’ve seen.
As trite as it sounds, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that can be as much or as little as you make of it. The Coens have acknowledged the relative absence of plot, but it’s in the quiet spaces between music and abject misery that the film flourishes. A musical duo, Llewyn’s dual heritage, two cats, two pregnancies, two doors at the end of the Berkey’s apartment building, the lyrics of The Death of Queen Jane that Llewyn performs for Grossman – the film invites you to examine the duality of the narrative. It’s beautifully dark, funny and meaningful filmmaking from the most dependable duo in Hollywood, and in the words of Llewyn Davis, “You’ve probably heard that one before – it’s not new, and it never gets old…”
Inside Llewyn Davis is released on 24th January 2014 in the UK