The films of Joel and Ethan Coen have always had a certain level of deadpan quirk, a feature that brands the movie with a metaphorical CB, but they also always manage to change the overall tone or theme to make each film seem fresh and new while still having that auteur stamp. In their past few movies, with the notable exception of the zanier Burn After Reading, the Coens have become much more contemplative and focused on characters searching for some kind of meaning in the grand scheme of things. This trend continues with their newest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, which is, if possible, their most solemn and melancholic yet. It also has a soundtrack that will make your heart cry.
Like all Coen Bros movies, the time and place in Inside Llewyn Davis are paramount. It takes place in New York’s folk music scene in the cold, slushy winter of 1961, and we follow a very-down-on-his-luck musician, the titular Davis, played by Oscar Isaac. He’s a very talented and soulful musician who nevertheless can’t seem to catch a break, playing the same circuit of clubs and crashing on the same sequence of people’s couches. All of this is in the aftermath of the suicide of his musical partner, with whom he shared a good amount of success, and Llewyn now seems to be unable to find his place without his other half.
To make matters more confusing and unfortunate, Llewyn might have gotten the wife (Carey Mulligan) of his good friend (Justin Timberlake), who is also a singer-songwriter, pregnant. Llewyn’s one hope seems to be in seeing the fabled Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) in Chicago, who owns a club and manages top folk talent. To get there, though, Llewyn will have to carpool with a haughty jazz musician (John Goodman), a laconic actor (Garrett Hedlund), and a runaway cat.
Llewyn is frustrated and woeful, a condition that almost always leads him to make the wrong decision about things. The universe doesn’t seem to be doing him any favors either. Isaac is truly wonderful in the lead role, being thoroughly unlikable a lot of the time, but always with a sense that this guy is getting short shrift and is doing the best he can. He’s a lost soul, which is definitely hard to portray without coming across as emo.
The other characters are the requisite Coen-style people, each only really able to exist in the context of the film. Goodman’s embittered, infirm jazz musician is especially out-there, spending most of his screen time either soliloquizing on his glory days, putting down Llewyn and all folk musicians, or nodding off, snoring loudly. Conversely, Hedlund’s super-cool hipster barely says a single word or makes any kind of noise at all. There’s also a very memorable sequence in which Llewyn acts as a studio musician in which he, Timberlake’s character, and a cowboy hat-clad Adam Driver (evoking Ramblin’ Jack Elliott) sing a silly pop song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” in which they beseech the new president not to send them into outer space.
Speaking of the musical numbers, they are truly moving and wonderful. The music in the film was produced by T. Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford, so the pedigree is certainly of the highest order. The performances were all recorded live, so whenever you see Isaac sing and play guitar, you’re actually watching him do it. As if his acting wasn’t fantastic enough, he gets to impress musically. It’s in these songs that we get to see Llewyn as he probably would love to be all the time: connected, soulful, moved, and at peace.
Inside Llewyn Davis is typically ambiguous, but crafts a funny and thoughtful story of a man longing to fit into a world he should by all rights be on the top of. The Coen Brothers again prove their a powerful voice in film, and have again made a cinematic experience so rich with character and setting as to stick with the viewer for days and weeks after seeing it. It’s a movie, like all the best do, that rattles around in your head like a tune you can’t quite remember but also feel like you’ve always known.