“Inside Llewyn Davis” is probably the most restrained work from the Coen brothers, but it is probably the most atmospheric film from these talented brothers who has freely moved between various genres to delight(and punch) us for many years. While their plot here in this movie is far less twisty than some of their memorable comedies, the movie is shrouded in the melancholic but lovely atmosphere to be appreciated with its top-notch production design and soundtrack, and that frustrating elusiveness of success felt by its artist hero feels closer to us even when we are tickled by the Cohen brothers’ wry sense of humor residing beneath his gloomy plight during one wintry week.
It is winter in 1961, and every day is struggle for a young unknown folk singer Llewyn Davis(Oscar Isaac). He did make one album with his partner, but his album did not give him a breakthrough he had yearned for, and now he is performing alone because his partner, who never appears in the movie except in the photo on the album jacket, recently committed suicide for some reason.
He has no home, so he usually bounces around the homes of his friends or acquaintances. In the next morning after his latest performance at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, we see him waking up at the nice, comfortable apartment belonging to a generous college professor he is acquainted with. There is no one in the apartment, and he is supposed to leave the place gently after having a breakfast and leaving a note expressing his small gratitude to the professor, but he finds himself stuck with the professor’s pet cat. The door is already locked when he sees that the cat has gone after him, and, to make the matters worse, there is no one to keep the cat for a while in the apartment building.
While being its reluctant temporary keeper, he searches for another place to stay for tonight. He luckily gets it within a short time, but he is not welcomed much. His fellow folk singer Jim(Justin Timberlake) and another temporary guest Troy Nelson(Stark Sands), who is also building his own singing career while serving in US Army, do not mind about Llewyn and the cat staying with them, but Jim’s partner/wife Jean(Carey Mulligan) is hostile to Llewyn for a very good reason; she is pregnant, and it may be Llewyn’s child. Whatever happened between her and Llewyn in the past, their private conversation scene is bitter enough for us to see that Llewyn was not a good man to her, and Mulligan delivers her character’s barbed lines with pungent precision: “Everything you touch turns to sh*t, you’re like King Midas’s idiot brother.”
He tries to get the money for her abortion, and he also tries to get any good chance for his career, but the coincidences in his life seem to align mostly against himself. Besides losing the cat(and that is not the first time, by the way), he keeps finding himself against the wall, and he gets frustrated by that. His old, ineffectual agent is not very helpful, and his disastrous trip to Chicago does not change anything even though he did present his talent to a prominent Chicago music producer(played by F. Murray Abraham) in the end, and now he comes to wonder seriously about whether he should give up his singer career or not.
In their many comedy films, the directors/writers the Coen brothers frequently had a devious fun with throwing twists and turns at their unlucky heroes struggling within messy situations, but they sometimes showed care to their characters even when drawing sharp laughs from their plights, and the results were some of their best works including “Fargo”(1996) and “A Serious Man”(2009). In case of “Inside Llewyn Davis”, they subtly balance their story between drama and comedy, and the humorous moments in the movie are mostly kept at low-key level. For example, when Llewyn visits his aging dad at a nursing home, we naturally come to expect something to come out when he plays a song for his father, but this scene feels so quiet and serious that it may take some time for you to realize its punch line at the end of the scene.
The screenplay, which is as intelligent and precise as we can expect from the Coen brothers, provides a fair share of offbeat moments which work well with the melancholic background in the film. One of the best moments comes from a part involved with Llewyn’s trip to Chicago, and John Goodman, who plays a boisterous guy who happens to travel along with Llewyn and a beatnik poet played by Garrett Hedlund, steals the show with his character’s obnoxious rudeness.
The music is a crucial part in the story, and the songs produced by T-Bone Burnett, who previously collaborated with the Coen Brothers in their another music movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”(2000), are well-chosen for giving the feel of the era before Bob Dylan became popular. The lead actor Oscar Isaac, who unfortunately did not get Oscar-nominated for his dedicated performance, and his co-actors including Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake sing the songs for themselves in the movie, and they are good enough to make an enjoyable soundtrack to listen(“Please Mr. Kennedy”, an amusing novelty song performed by Issac, Timberlake, and Adam Driver, is the most fun of all). The period setting in the movie is impeccable, and the cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who deserves a recent Oscar nomination for his work here in this film, did a impressive job of creating the smoky mood of light and shadow for the performance scenes at the Gaslight Cafe, and the gray, unsaturated tone of his cinematography effectively accentuates the desolation and desperation inside the story.
While virtually throwing gut-punch to its unfortunate hero more than once, “Inside Llewyn Davis” tells that familiar hard truth about music business. Llewlyn may be talented enough to be as well-known as Bob Dylan or Dave Van Ronk(the movie was loosely and partially inspired by the career of the latter although the story is entirely a fiction), but it also requires some luck to be successful and famous, and our poor singer sadly does not have much for that while others are a little luckier. A sadder thing is, he may be destined to be stuck forever in his artistic purgatory even if he really wants to quit – and success will still be as elusive as that damn cute cat.