The essence of any character piece, especially one like this, is that for a short period of time (in this case, an hour and forty-five minutes), we are completely inside a person’s world; navigating through their faults, problems, dreams, goals, hardships, conquests and successes. Inside Llewyn Davis is a film with very little accomplishments for its title character, but the film itself is anything but dissatisfying. Gorgeous in its bleakness and ridled with grey areas surrounded by sadness and endless failures, Inside Llewyn Davis is a slow, melodic narrative about the criticism that ridicule the life of an artist and the passion that ignites us all.
The Coen Brothers may very well be one of the most respected and applauded American directing duo working today, and rightly so. In their newest writing/directing gig, the Coens single-handedly deliver one of the most mysterious folktales in American cinema history, showcasing the talents of an actor who can sing his heart out and help drive one of the best original soundtracks in recent memory. The truth of the matter is, the Coen‘s completely submerge themselves in their work, and it is quite evident with Davis. Like its misunderstood and highly underrated protagonist, the film is a descent into the truth of the subjectivity of art and music. Every person is entitled to their own taste, and folk music is one genre that may not be for everyone. Fortunately for audiences and cinema lovers, the Coen brothers craft a finely-tuned tale of an artist’s struggle to make it in the Greenwich Village music scene in New York City during the early 1960’s. My only hope is that this film doesn’t find itself limited to theatres full of indie film lovers, Coen fanatics, and young kids looking to get pointers on how to be “hipster”.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a film loosely based on the life and music of Dave Van Ronk, an acoustic folk pioneer in the 60’s. But like so many, including myself, who had never heard of Van Ronk, the film itself is a testament to the power of interdisciplinary art forms. From the moment the spotlight is on, we are never quite sure if we are processing the power of the musicians on the small stages of coffee shops in Greenwich village, or if we are just surprised those musicians are actually just actors. Thankfully that’s where the talent and genius of chief executive music producer T Bone Burnett shines. Llewyn Davis becomes an applause worthy narrative that centers on the music and the stories these rich characters tell with their heavy lyrics and the strum of their acoustic guitars rather than just another character piece about a bunch of musicians. Instead of opting for A-list actors and teaching them how to pass with lip-syncing, the Coens got a hold of talented actors with incredible singing/songwriting abilities. From Justin Timberlake to Carey Mulligan to Marcus Mumford, the directors as well as music producer Burnett focus on the sound of the film to carry its authentic charm rather than the noises music-centric films often make. Delivering a bare-boned, authentically raw and vulnerable film stripped of all glamour, and instead is replaced with the grungy tattered clothing of real artists struggling to find a place to sleep, the artists and actors, as well as the music, are the real stand-out performers of Davis.
The film takes place over a week in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). Beginning under the uncertain smoky spotlight of the Gaslight Anthem, it is evident that Davis’ voice, along with his sad storytelling music is heart wrenching, to say the least. The film begins and Davis introduces himself and his music with the sombre lyrics “Hang me, oh hang me”, a small glimpse into the reality Llewyn has faced as of recent. Llewyn has seen his fair share of death and tragedy, especially after his musical partner Mike commits suicide. As Llewyn tries to find a way to not just exist, but become something of himself as a folk musician, his journey as well as the journeys of everyone he meets along the way, becomes a modern-day Greek tragedy.
There are roles some people are just born to play, and Oscar Isaac was born to play the role of Llewyn Davis. The moment his mouth opens and his eyes gaze upon the scarce crowd, he delivers on a level that is satisfying for a singer as well as an actor, that makes you want to stand up and applaud after every song he sings–literally, I actually had to stop myself from standing up and applauding. Needless to say Isaac left his audience in the theatre hypnotized. Isaac delivers in ways that are both vile yet breathtaking. Irresponsible, unapologetic and inconsiderate to everyone, Llewyn Davis epitomizes the selfish arrogance any artists must learn to contain while on their seemingly endless uphill battle to success. Llewyn’s actions are unethical and impulsive, and his demeanour although comical at times, is somewhat unnerving. Regardless of his characters personal faults, I cannot stress enough that Isaac’s performance is simply one of the best musical performances to ever grace the silver screen–ever!
Inside Llewyn Davis may be a minimal film in its exterior and log line, but like anything the Coen‘s deliver, this film is a complex delivery with sonic depth. Their diversity and explicit passion as film lovers as well as music lovers, is really only understood once its head-to-head with the possibility of Llewyn abandoning his dreams as a musician to just merely exist, conforming to society and finding an average 9-5pm job, or worse enlisting in the army alongside Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), an overrated singer who dabbles in stints of great success in between tours, and Lleywn’s father Hugh Davis (Stan Carp), a decelerated war hero. The film is a precocious observation of a struggle seen throughout all art forms; the fine line between art as a passion, and art as a business. In one of the most compassionate scenes in the film, Llewyn ventures far to come face-to-face with Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a big-time music producer in Chicago. When Llewyn sings Grossman a weary yet instantly revealing and harrowing rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane”, Grossman looks at him and simply says, “I don’t see a lot of money”. It is then that this film instantly becomes a sub-text of the search for success and, yes of course, monetary gain, by stripping the heart and selling your soul for popularity and fame.
The Coen’s certainly know how to bring the lively music of the fictional to the painfully deafening world of the mundane; whether it be simple shots of getting arrested with the beautifully coloured glare of the sirens, to a philosophical instance of substance abuse, or that uncomfortable feeling of getting your socks wet in the winter, Inside Llewyn Davis is a memorable musical-fiction act that will be hard to upstage for many years to come.
Night Film Reviews: 8.5/10 Stars.
Is Inside Llewyn Davis one of the best films of the year or an over-rated Oscar-centric platform? Have the Coen Brothers delivered yet again or missed the target completely? Leave your thoughts and comments below!