Ethan and Joel Coen are consummate masters of the cinematic art form. They make movies that are amusing, haunting, thrilling, moving, galvanizing, challenging, and even frustrating. That they do it across genres as varied as westerns, neo-noirs, crime thrillers, screwball comedies, and musicals speaks volumes on their invaluable talent. More than anything, they make movies about impeccably-realized characters – people who may not always be the most likeable or appealing but who, in spite of their flaws and sins, reveal truths that are immediately identifiable. It’s what makes their films timeless, compulsively watchable, and unforgettable.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), the folk singing protagonist of their newest gift to cinema, Inside Llewyn Davis, is the latest in their line of unforgettable characters. Set in New York over the course of a week in the winter of 1961, the quasi-musical follows Llewyn as he hopscotches between performing at a Greenwich Village club, trying to score a record contract, and bumming on couches at his friends’ homes. Things weren’t always like this – he used to be a part of a promising duo. But tragedy struck and now he’s branching out as a solo artist.
Despite being undeniably talented, no one is willing to give him a shot. This is partly because folk music hasn’t hit the mainstream as yet (Bob Dylan was still to come) but a lot of it has to do with Llewyn himself. When his chirpy friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), also a musician, offers him a spot on a recording of a cheesy but potentially lucrative novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” the ungrateful Llewyn takes the gig but then insults Jim and chooses to bypass royalties in favor of a quick dime. When Jim’s wife and musical partner Jean (Carrie Mulligan), who hates Llewyn for impregnating her after an affair, asks him how long he plans to go on struggling, he arrogantly chides her, calling her a careerist and square. When a nurturing older couple opens their home to him, he repays them by losing their cat, and screaming at them for asking him to sing for them. He even condescends to his sister – insulting her for not understanding what it’s like to be an artist. In short, he’s an asshole, or as Jean eloquently puts it, like King Midas’ idiot brother, “Everything you touch turns to shit.”
Llewyn may be a loser and an unlikeable jerk with barely any redeeming qualities, but Isaac’s brilliant performance makes you care about him. The Guatemalan-born, Miami-raised actor, who has appeared in supporting roles in everything from Drive to Robin Hood to The Bourne Legacy, comes through big time in his first major leading role, nailing the tough task of making Llewyn sympathetic despite his obvious shortcomings as well as knocking the singing out of the park. Like fellow loser-protagonists Barton Fink, the Dude, Ed Crane, and Larry Gopnik before him, Llewyn Davis may be the brainchild of the Coens, but its Isaac’s wonderfully lived-in performance that gives him soul.
With its unlikeable protagonist, depressing subject matter, and pessimistic worldview, Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t likely to gain many fans outside cinephile circles. But like in their 2009 masterpiece A Serious Man, which mined similar themes of failure and struggle, the siblings aren’t interested in appealing to the widest audiences possible. This is a sublime and intimate character-driven piece that captures what it’s like to be talented yet being stuck in a never-ending cycle of failure and rejection.
That they capture this melancholic spirit using a string of melodic full-length folk songs, all performed live by the cast, is a gift to all of us. The songs – produced by music legend T. Bone Burnett (who also worked with the brothers on O Brother, Where Art Thou?) range from funny to sad to touching. The songs work in the interest of the characters and the story. The result is a strange and beautiful character piece that doubles as a concert movie.
Greatly aiding the film’s profound sense of sadness is the beautiful cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, who sits in for Coens regular Roger Deakins. Delbonnel’s work is a big reason why we find ourselves invested in Llewyn. It captures the harsh, perpetually overcast, and uncooperative world that Llewyn has to navigate when he makes a difficult trip to Chicago as well as the warmth when he sits under the spotlight, baring his soul to the audience at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village. As Coens-regular John Turturro said in a recent essay, “Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t manipulate you or ask you to feel a certain way about the guy. It just takes you somewhere you haven’t been before: inside Llewyn Davis.” And with Oscar Isaac’s soulful performance at its heart, it’s a journey well worth taking.