Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a young folk singer looking for his big break, or at least a pay cheque. Over the course of a week, the Coen Brothers take us into his world, and the creatures that inhabit it.
It is easy to see who influenced Inside Llewyn Davis; the spectre of Bob Dylan hangs around the edges of the entire film, but this is not Dylan’s story and nor is it entirely the story of Llewyn Davis, instead, the film is a portrait of New York in the early 1960s and the people who made it. As Llewyn moves from the Village to the Upper East Side, his presence highlights the choices made by the people around him.
Oscar Isaac, as Llewyn, is a tortured soul whose raw talent is overshadowed by considerations of money, and the mess he leaves in his wake. Isaac shows us that Llewyn is generally a good man who tries to make the right decisions, but his focus on his career frustrates those who try to get close to him. The cat who spends much of his time in Davis’s company shows Davis off to be a caring man and in fact, his troubles with the cat can be seen as an allegory for the world around Davis; unpredictable, unreliable but ultimately comforting.
Carey Mulligan finally takes a step away from the simpering roles with which she made her name, and plays an angry woman who is even angrier at allowing herself to become involved with Llewyn. Mulligan spits curse words with vitriol and her sarcastic and prickly performance is a joy to watch. John Goodman makes an appearance as a caustic junkie jazz musician, and proves that the he thrives under the careful eye of the Coens. Garret Hedlund counteracts Goodman’s talkative character as his watchful and quiet valet. Justin Timberlake, Stark Sands and Adam Driver drift through the film leaving strong impressions and upping the quirky, random feeling of the movie.
The Coen Brothers have a beautiful talent for gazing at the odd little corners of America and pulling out a big-hearted story. A far cry from Christopher Guest’s parody of the folk music scene in A Mighty Wind, The Coens instead use the music of Inside Llewyn Davis to give us a greater understanding of the tragedy that mars the lives of their characters. The tone is as dark as we have come to expect from the sibling filmmakers, but the trademark Coen kookiness is dialled down here, in terms of dialogue, and even the most over the top characters feel scaled back in order to fit into this bleak and beautifully melancholic world. Where the film suffers slightly is through a lack of ‘plot’; Llewyn is drifting, and we drift with him, aching for a resolution or a choice that never happens.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautifully shot glimpse into the week in the life of a man whose life is slowly falling apart. Oscar Isaac beautifully captures the tortured soul of a heartbroken troubadour whose songs appear to be mourning his career, even as it dies and that darn cat is going to break hearts. The Coen Brothers, once again, cast their careful gaze on a slice of America, and pulled a darkly comic, heart-rending story to the fore.