The beating heart of an artist in a tailspin fuels the Coen Brothers lovely little period picture, Inside Llewyn Davis, a beautifully rendered portrait of a struggling folk guitarist, played in a star-making performance by Oscar Isaac, circa 1961 Greenwich Village. In a season full of movies about survival, Inside Llewyn Davis fits nicely—it’s as much about the survival of the soul and the hunger to be self-actualized as it is about finding a couch to sleep on for the night.
Llewyn Davis (Isaac) can’t get a break. After the suicide of his long-time musical partner, he’s suddenly a solo act living hand-to-mouth after a failed album, exhausting the goodwill and patience of anyone who will have him. This includes friends and fellow Village folk singers Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan), and his hapless agent (the late Jerry Grayson), doing little to promote him.
Evenings are spent playing open mic gigs (the soundtrack if filled with gorgeous songs courtesy of music producer T-Bone Burnett) for chump change, while days including schlepping around his guitar and fighting with bitter Jean, who happens to be pregnant, very possibly by Llewyn. LLewyn’s no-nonsense sister (Jeanine Serralles) doesn’t understand his bohemian lifestyle and wishes Llewyn would reconnect with their invalid father, or at least go back to the steady wages of his merchant marine former life.
Llewyn’s other benefactors are wealthy, Columbia University academics (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett) on the Upper West Side, affording some levity amidst the bleak circumstances. Perhaps the film’s most memorable supporting character arrives on a road trip to Chicago where we meet drug-addled crippled jazz musician Roland Turner (an incendiary John Goodman) and his laconic valet (Garrett Hedlund, a great singer in his own right).
Davis may be a middling musician, but in the Coens’ universe he’s a stalled folk hero, clinging to ideals and real talent in a rapidly commoditizing world populated by generically monotonous emerging artists like G.I. Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), a squeaky clean homogenous bore who has secured a record deal with impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), proprietor of Chicago’s famous Gate of Horn.
The Coens’ perfectly pitched character study depicts a specific time, place and frame of mind, yet no doubt some will find it an arcane, small slice about a maddeningly single-minded and not always likable artiste fueling his own, self-created dramas—and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But acting in every scene of the picture and in close-up, you can’t help but feel for Isaac as the hapless Llewyn, who keeps pushing, trudging through snow and rain, believing, singing and then doing it again.
Inside Llewyn Davis is undeniably an exquisite visual and aural achievement, with impeccable cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, who delivers the picture’s downtown milieu of smoky clubs and coffee shops in muted, cold tones before depicting a haunting, surrealistic highway sojourn of open road. And the striking soundtrack, featuring full song performances including a pop showstopper—Please Mr. Kennedy, performed by Timberlake, Isaac and one very funny Adam Driver—is a big part of the film’s spell.
Julliard trained Isaac, as comfortable as a musician as an actor, is a revelation. In past pictures like Sucker Punch and Drive he hasn’t been given the latitude to express much, but his soulful, anti-hero melancholy, singing his heart out, is as essential to the picture as the Coens themselves.
What do you do, the film asks, when you’ve got the goods, yet your dreams slip further from reach each day—and nobody cares?