This movie is all about folk music.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, takes place before Bob Dylan arrived in New York in 1961 and changed the face of the folk music scene forever. Pre-Dylan New York ,before he came to town, the folk revival, centered around Greenwich Village, relied heavily on two things: the importance of authenticity and oral tradition. Working class musicians sat around on Sunday afternoons in Washington Square Park and shared traditional tunes from person to person. Old lumberjack hymns or prairie melodies from lost times interpreted, and tweaked accordingly, by each individual. A giant game of musical telephone that took place over several years, warped traditional songs into contemporary folk ballads. It was a community of artists and thinkers, beatniks if you will, who prided themselves on setting themselves apart by remaining authentic and avoiding the mainstream. To be a true artist without compromise was the goal. People wanted to make a living making music, but were afraid of “selling out.” Unblurred honesty was the key to their musical happiness. Their talent’s passion craved recognition without the fame.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is the embodiment of this culture. Untouched by wealth or love, Llewyn is a tough, working man’s man that walks around with a chip on his shoulder. His problems are piled on top of failed relationships and more problems. His music represents his life, and serves as his only outlet for genuine honesty and solace; a counterbalance to his unconventional way of expressing warmness through shortened dialogue and dry humour. He’s cold, inside and out, and alone. Only his music allows him to connect with other people and replace his coarse, gruff exterior with the soft bluebird that nests inside. Inside Llewyn Davis takes us on a journey with an anti-hero who struggles to make ends meet financially, socially, and artistically. But, most of all, this film paints a portrait of a man struggling to commit to something that he knows is doomed to fail, yet too stubborn to quit. Because, in the end, it’s the only thing he has to hold on to. Music is all he knows.
Oscar Isaac, as Davis, does a phenomenal job portraying a struggling artist living from couch to couch, person to person, song to song. It seems as if he was born to play this role. A dramatic actor with a musical background, Isaac (Drive (2011), Robin Hood (2010)) was exactly what the Coens were looking for to fit the lead role. With all the music played live, without any tuners or wires or thingamajigs, Joel and Ethan needed someone who could carry the movie in all the dramatic scenes while still being able to captivate an audience during his performances. With his sandpaper quality, Oscar convincingly portrays a member of the working class, which is a huge part of Davis’ character. His talent is undeniable; singing, plucking songs learned in a compressed amount of time and performing them exquisitely is impressive, to say the least. Isaac is the perfect marriage between actor and musician; He was the only choice for this role, really.
The supporting cast, highlighted by Jean (Mulligan) and Jim (Timberlake), serve only as a reflection of Llewyn’s personality. Their presence in the film is only to help us learn more about Davis and his flaws: his inability to maintain healthy relationships, his existence as a perpetual loner. The only proper relationship that Llewyn had ever known jumped off of the Washington Bridge, and hasn’t quite finished grieving.
Davis is an introverted outsider with a talent meant for the public, but without the gusto to hold a crowd. He can captivate with onstage emotion, but is a hopeless entertainer. He lacks charisma, but, in a sense, that makes him even more charming. He’s talented, but unwilling to change, and ultimately doomed. Llewyn Davis is pitiful because he’s very good, but not great.
Like their previous film steeped in Americana, O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), the Coen Brothers have collaborated with T-Bone Burnett, and chosen a catalogue of traditional American music for this film (hint: folk songs instead of bluegrass). Inside Llewyn Davis almost feels like a documentary, as if it were taking place in front of your eyes. The songs are performed live and in their entirety. The opening scene is Isaac playing “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” for three whole minutes. Combined with a set dedicated to looking like Winter of 1961, the result of the music lifts viewers into the screen. Truly, music from another time and another place, a transportive experience.