‘I am a man of COEN sorrow…’
In a dimly lit smoky bar, an unshaven, slightly disheveled, solo male singer leans into a mic and begins gently singing, ‘Hang me / Oh hang me / I’ll be dead and gone.’ For the next three or so minutes, we are up close and personal to this singer, watching his calm disposition as he sings out the entirety of the song, not even once looking up at the quiet audience wrapped up in the beautiful melody, drinks, and cigarettes. This is how Inside Llewyn Davis begins, the extraordinary and immaculately conceived new film by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, or as we know them, the Coen brothers. This singer is, of course, Llewyn Davis, and these opening lyrics are deliberately chosen to open the story — they set the tone and capture the somber outlook of the title character. Based on a pivotal moment in our nation’s cultural history, and using a fictionalized version of folk musician Dave Van Ronk to capture the experience of many lost artists of that time period, Inside Llewyn Davis is a pointedly dark and comical drama that serves as an allegorical tale and a cinematic exposé of the unfortunate “futility” of many talented artists.
The story of Inside Llewyn Davis is based in the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961, just moments before Bob Dylan emerged onto the scene and changed music forever. Played by the soon-to-be more (deservedly) well known Oscar Isaac (Drive, Robin Hood), Llewyn Davis is a solo musician who is emotionally recovering from the loss of his former music partner, and, in the meantime, is playing occasional gigs, slumming on friends couches, and wondering why his music isn’t selling. Through his performances, we’re able to get a sense of the tormented soul and tired creativity of the man, since these moments are when he’s able to expel his true feelings. In Davis’s dealings with his friends and family, especially his former lover, Jean (a cold and beautiful Carey Mulligan), he can’t help but find himself inexplicably in confrontations. Misfortune follows Llewyn Davis, wherever he goes. This cycle of mishaps and missed opportunities is similar to another of the Coen brothers’ recent offerings, A Serious Man (2009). Like Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man, Llewyn Davis is a victim of fate, a man constantly out of luck and tested. Gopnik’s faith was tested in A Serious Man as Davis’s artistic integrity is tested here.
One of the staples of all Coen brothers’ films are the side characters, and there is no shortage of unique personalities here. Each personality Llewyn Davis encounters seems to be emblematic of a subculture, social group, or class of people, from Llewyn’s stingy old agent, to the wealthy Upper West Side liberal couple who offer Llewyn a couch to crash on, to the crude drug-addicted jazz musician, Roland Turner (the ultimate Coen film alumnus, John Goodman), with whom Davis bums a ride to Chicago (along with Turner’s man of few words valet, Johnny Five, played by Garret Hedlund). Turner pontificates about music, life, and etymology, all the while chastising Davis’s very livelihood. It’s a terrific bit of acting by Goodman, who once again steals the scene with a presence of mind and physicality. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the lovely Justin Timberlake, who plays Llewyn’s friend and Jean’s current love interest, Jim, a satirically and obliviously polite and pleasant folk musician.
The most memorable supporting talent, however, is the cat(s). Disregarding the fact that a handful of similar looking felines were used to capture the performance, the Coens patience paid off because that darned orange tabby is unbelievably entertaining. And leave it to the Coen brothers to insert a seemingly mundane or minute detail into a story in a way that ends up carrying an absurd amount of meaning and/or interpretations, their preferred method of intriguing audiences since Raising Arizona. A cat, a box of records, a sound, a movement… every moment on screen is carefully crafted to elicit the most efficient humor and substance. As Executive Music Producer T-Bone Burnett discussed in a recent interview with Spinning Platters, “One thing about the Coens is that there’s history in every shot… That’s one of the reasons why they have control, because economy is the essence of art.”
Let’s now touch on the music! Like the Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Inside Llewyn Davis is steeped in traditional folk songs. They are beautifully performed, with only one of the songs prerecorded and later lip-synced on screen. Isaac balances a keen eye for tortured-soul acting with a graceful musical stage presence, which is key to the character’s social and musical dichotomy. The various songs — although from the same overall genre, are based in subsections that directly contrast each other — popular sellout money-makers and unpopular melodies from the past. As we hear the songs, we feel sorrow for the forlorn performers, knowing full well that this story is about one of the lost ones. It’s easy to imagine Llewyn Davis actually existing in the early 1960’s, unflinching in his pursuit to make a name for himself using what he has, and unwilling to branch out or bend with the changing times. Thus, Inside Llewyn Davis is a sorrowful tale. It’s a brilliant work by two modern master filmmakers. You’ll leave the theater both sympathizing for Llewyn’s plight while envious of his artistic devotion and skill. The film also serves a wake-up call, since we all know that there are so many creative minds in the world that get overlooked, for endless reasons. What the Coens have done is supply us with an example of such a mind…presented in a parable generated from their own remarkable talents.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens in select Bay Area theaters today, December 20, 2013.