Inside Llewyn Davis review: Effortless Oscar Isaac as ‘the last folk singer who didn’t make it’
Since the Coen Brothers are quintessentially American filmmakers, it’s apropos to use a baseball analogy to note that they enjoy the best batting average of any American filmmakers this side of Bronx-born Stanley Kubrick (or maybe Martin Scorsese or the remarkable early run of Rob Reiner).
But whereas Kubrick reinvented every genre he tackled, Joel and Ethan Coen have become a genre of their own. With visual and thematic precision, they’ve sometimes mordantly, oftentimes violently, and always brilliantly extracted and clarified the key attributes of almost every category of American film, including the classic Western (True Grit), the gangster saga (Miller’s Crossing), the noir thriller (Blood Simple), and the screwball comedy (The Hudsucker Proxy).
For their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens recreate the nascent Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961 in beautifully rendered gray, urban tones that, typical for their work, avoid looking sterile despite their studied exactitude. (Here the Coens seamlessly swapped out longtime DP Roger Deakins for Bruno Delbonnel.) They also take their deepest dive into characterization since their inward-looking masterpiece A Serious Man.
‘Minor key ode’ to flawed singer
Guitarist and folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is one of the Coens’ most fully realized creations. He’s a disheveled, benign screw-up with just enough talent to remain on the folk scene and just enough shambling charm to avoid alienating everyone he comes in contact with. Mixing humor, music, melancholy, and light streaks of surrealism, the Coens have created a minor key ode to a talented singer whose flaws forever keep him one step behind musical and personal success.
Much like its subject, Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t move as much as it drifts. After showcasing his on-stage talent with an arresting opening performance of the traditional folk ballad “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” Llewyn reveals himself to be an off-stage disaster existing almost solely on the largess of others, starting with Columbia scholars, the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett).
On occasion he also crashes on the couch of his married ex-girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan, ripping through a one-note role), whose recent fling with “King Midas’ idiot brother” has resulted in her getting pregnant (although Jean is so disgusted with Llewyn she can’t bring herself to confirm he’s actually the father).
‘Beautiful singer and guitarist’ Oscar Isaac
No matter who helps him, Llewyn never seems particularly appreciative of his benefactors, an endlessly obliging bunch undeterred by his complete disassociation from the effects of his behavior. Still, there’s something a bit lovable about Llewyn’s ineptitude – the way he affectionately cares for, and repeatedly loses, the Gorfeins’ cat, or the way he thoughtlessly swears in front of his pre-teen nephew. It keeps our allegiance swinging back and forth between exasperation and optimism, as Llewyn finds one last tattered card to play and then finds a way to squander it.
Oscar Isaac, who is half-Guatemalan and half-Cuban, so effortlessly melds these disparate personal qualities (he’s also a beautiful singer and guitarist) that one might forget he’s giving an actual motion picture performance.
‘Expert use of period music’
As they did in their frisky, O Brother, Where Art Thou, the Coens make expert use of period music to envelop us in their chosen environment. Here they achieve the kind of authenticity that folk audiences of the time demanded of their artists (which is ironic since many artists changed their names and personas in the interest of fame, something the Coens cheekily touch on).
From the song selections and arrangements of the legendary T Bone Burnett to the cover art of the album Llewyn recorded when he performed as part of a duo, Inside Llewyn Davis’ wondrous musical credibility helps keep Llewyn’s Jobian journey from becoming a pure downer. A few of these songs are performed in their entirety, with the actors singing their own parts.
Justin Timberlake, no stranger to singing his own parts, plays Jean’s husband, the leader of a Kingston Trio-esque outfit and writer of “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” a period-accurate (read: awful) novelty song that Llewyn helps record because he needs the money. In fact, he’s so desperate for bread that he forfeits his share of future song royalties for a couple hundred bucks up front, a decision we regret long before Llewyn does.
‘The difficulties of assimilation’
It’s been said that the Coens enjoy beating up their main characters to an extent that borders on sadism. To some, this explains much of what happens to Llewyn, including the torturous, surrealist car ride he takes from New York to Chicago with a corpulent, folk-hating dope fiend (John Goodman) and his laconic driver (Garrett Hedlund, from 2012’s adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road, no coincidence there). But this argument holds little merit in general and in the specific case of Inside Llewyn Davis.
Putting aside that such conflict is only the root of all drama, Inside Llewyn Davis is less a cruel, droll character assassination than another riff on one of the Coens’ occasional themes: the difficulties of assimilation. A subset of their films touches on characters, many Jewish, trying to navigate a world or environment not their own, be it religious (A Serious Man), professional (Barton Fink), ethnic (parts of Miller’s Crossing), or cultural (Inside Llewyn Davis).
Inside Llewyn Davis paves the way for Bob Dylan
To extend the latter argument, Inside Llewyn Davis is also about political assimilation in the early ’60s, with the younger generation searching for their voice in a country transitioning out of the Eisenhower era (represented by the grizzled, cowboy hat-wearing tough guy who bookends the film). In that sense, the melancholy tragedy of Llewyn and the shambolic week spent in his company is one of timing.
The Coens are telling the story of the last folk singer who didn’t make it. The one who needed to fail so Bob Dylan could enter the scene and change everything socially, musically, and politically. To put a positive spin on it, Llewyn Davis, for all his abundant talent, will witness the folk explosion of the 1960s. He’ll just witness it as a paying customer.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Direction & Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen.
Cast: Oscar Isaac. Carey Mulligan. Justin Timberlake. Ethan Phillips. Robin Bartlett. Max Casella. Jerry Grayson. Jeanine Serralles. Adam Driver. Stark Sands. John Goodman. Garrett Hedlund. Alex Karpovsky. F. Murray Abraham.
Carey Mulligan and Oscar Isaac Inside Llewyn Davis images: CBS Films.
“Inside Llewyn Davis Review: Effortless Oscar Isaac Is ‘Last Folk Singer Who Didn’t Make It’” last updated in July 2018.