The Folksmen

Inside Llewyn Davis
(USA, 105 min.)
Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, John Goodman.
Oscar Isaac in Joel and Ethan Coen’s' Inside Llewyn Davis.
Photo: Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC

“Ah, if you make a living out of it, more power to you,” says the boorish Roland (played by a riotously larger than life John Goodman) when Llewyn Davis (a revelatory Oscar Isaac) explains his profession to be that of a folk singer. Ornery folks like Roland might assume there isn’t much money to be had in composing eclectic and arty ballads that have something to say, but the beautiful music of Inside Llewyn Davis proves that business is a boomin’ in the folk scene. Inside Llewyn Davis is the latest effort from the brotherly filmmaking team of Joel Coen and Ethan Coen and it’s easily one of their best. And they made Fargo and No Country for Old Men. A man making a living with folk music tells stories of common Americans with cadence and candour, and the Coens have done exactly that. Inside Llewyn Davis is true folk.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a standout among the many great films about music that have hit the screen this year. Documentaries from 20 Feet from Stardom to Muscle Shoals have shone the spotlight on the unsung heroes of the music business and unearthed the social history of popular music with toe-tapping insight. On the dramatic side of things, Belgium’s The Broken Circle Breakdown offers an easy highlight for conveying the transformative power of songs. Inside Llewyn Davis fits comfortably with its brethren this movie year in that it encapsulates a clear mellow chord of the music business and finds the larger depth and meaning behind the words of a soulful song. One doesn’t know quite what expect at the prospect of seeing a “Coen Brothers musical,” but Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t even feel like a musical at all: it’s more like concert film, that lets the audience gab about the music between sets. It probably goes swell with a Guinness.

The film is an easy reminder for why brothers Coen are frequently dubbed as some of the best filmmakers working today. Inside Llewyn Davis might be one of the greatest films ever made about music. Like the best episode of Mad Men, Inside Llewyn Davis transports the viewer back to the 1960s, when everyone smoked, when pregnant women drank, and when America was in the midst of a cultural shift. Inside Llewyn Davis dramatizes a week in the life of folk musician Llewyn Davis as he struggles to make ends meet in the Greenwich Village folk scene circa 1961. Cinematographer Bruno Debonnel (who replaced the Coens’ regular DP Roger Deakins since Deakins was away shooting Skyfall) captures the era with the glow of old photographs and shoots the musical numbers with warmth and style. The cinematography in the film’s beatnik dives is truly marvellous. Inside Llewyn Davis is a great period piece with an eye and ear for the time.

Llewyn Davis is a fine folk singer, having cut a few records before the story begins, but he might have been one of those artists who had the misfortune of simply being ahead of his time. Folk is the big fad in the Village, as the mellow lyrics and plucky strings echo pleas for peace and harken back to ye olde days before the bomb. Llewyn isn’t doing too well when the pin drops on his story, though, for Inside Llewyn Davis shows a week in the life of this starving artist that ends almost the same as it begins. Llewyn had potential, yes, but his partner jumped off a bridge for reasons undisclosed (he probably saw the future a folk singer might have) and his career never quite got back on track.

Llewyn finds himself on a kind of quixotic quest as goes from gig to gig and from couch to couch, making ends meet by scoring free room and board, plus the occasional job on the side. He’s joined in his odyssey across America by a furry orange feline named Ulysses. Ulysses the cat is a true scene-stealer, as he does for cats in Inside Llewyn Davis what Uggie did for pooch performers in The Artist. Llewyn Davis must be a soothing soul, for this kitty remains extremely calm and docile in his care—Ulysses even keeps it cool whilst riding the subway whereas most other cats would scream bloody murder while riding in a car. There must be some kind of mutually understood kinship between the cat and the balladeer who keeps it in his care.

This animal performer isn’t pure dog tricks, though. The cat is symbolic of Llewyn’s aimlessness and his loserly ability to keep his life on track. On the road of his travels, Llewyn discovers that he’s fathered at least two children, one of which is now a full-fledged toddler that has never met its father. He also learns that he’s the baby-daddy for the accidental foetus floating in the belly of Jean (a feisty Carey Mulligan), who lets Llewyn crash for a few days in the apartment she shares with her husband. As Llewyn holds onto the squirmy feline (Ulysses is an escapee of one of Llewyn’s other hosts), the wandering poet learns the consequences that accompany the freedom of his eclectic drift through the land. This cat might be the greatest invention of the Coen canon since Marge Gunderson in Fargo, if only for the golden line of “Where’s his scrotum?!” that stands out amongst the rest of film’s immensely quotable script.

Not to be upstaged by his feline friend, Oscar Isaac gives an excellent performance as Llewyn Davis. Isaac, perhaps best known for his performance as Carey Mulligan’s ex-con husband in Drive, gives a smoothly soulful turn as the weary, yet cautiously optimistic Davis. Isaac performs several musical numbers throughout the film, offering mellow vocals that transport the viewer to a different era. Mulligan is equally good in her supporting turn as Jean, matching Isaac on the dry black comedy of the Coens’ script and acing the vocal performances that form the life force of the film. (Her performance of “Five Hundred Miles” is almost as captivating as her smoky rendition of “New York, New York” in Shame.)

Other highlights in the ensemble, which is cast to perfection in every role right down to the old crusty secretary working at the recording studio, include Garrett Hedlund as a distant relative of his On the Road wanderer Dean Moriarty named Johnny Five and John Goodman as the hilarious loudmouth Roland. Goodman all but steals the show from Ulysses during the peculiar road trip at the film’s centre. Justin Timberlake also provides a memorable turn in a small role as one of Llewyn’s fellow recording artists.

Timberlake adds his vocals to the film’s number “Please Mr. Kennedy,” which is easily the highlight of the film’s musical sequences. The song features Adam Driver doing some back-up vocals that are so ridiculously cheesy that they make the whole of “Please Mr. Kennedy” work. The song appears when Llewyn needs some quick cash and nabs a gig to record a silly ditty. Llewyn, like one artist too many at the time, waives his rights to royalties in order to be paid up front. He laughs at the tune that provides the easy paycheck, but while “Please Mr. Kennedy” might not have the depth or resonance of Llewyn’s performance of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” it’s a riotously entertaining tune that nevertheless voices the politics of the era. It just does so with a funky commercial vibe. Everyone says it’s going to make Llewyn a bundle. If only they knew.

The Coens manage to capture each facet of the evolution of folk and its place in time with each song that appears on the soundtrack. The music by T-Bone Burnett, Marcus Mumford et al is an exceptional study in both the role that storytelling plays in folk music and of the deceptive simplicity the music uses in speaking to the crowds. (Mumford’s performance of “Fare Thee Well” with Isaac is another highlight on the soundtrack.) Inside Llewyn Davis easily boasts the best playlist of the year, with most, if not all, of the songs enjoying some kind of narrative and thematic significance. Inside Llewyn Davis is vinyl as far as movies go.

A viewer who was alive during the time in which Inside Llewyn Davis is set—or, better yet, was living in Greenwich Village during the time in which the film is set—might appreciate the film to the fullest of its potential, but the songs offer an instantly accessible route into the film’s fascinating study of this era of music. Much like bluegrass ballads of The Broken Circle Breakdown, the folk songs of Inside Llewyn Davis offer access points that let the film speak to the audience as directly as the songs do to the characters.

The film itself drips with the illusorily effortlessness of folk music, as Inside Llewyn Davis initially appears to simply an episodic study of the life of some wandering beatnik. The film, however, takes the audience by surprise in a late act turn when, in decidedly Coen Brothers fashion, Lleywn’s story takes a familiar turn. It seems as if this is a story we’ve seen before as a reprise sets Llewyn on a similar song and voyage down a back alley, except that it plays out with the characters sharing the sense of déjà vu and with a character who adds a frame of reference to Llewyn's story. But watch closely: it all lies in the cat.

Inside Llewyn Davis makes one tip one’s hat to the brothers Coen, for the pair has made a career out of the artistic ambition at which Roland seems to scoff. They make for movies what Llewyn Davis makes for music, and more power to them for delivering a film as artfully ambitious and original as Inside Llewyn Davis is after their 2010 blockbuster True Grit. They could have made anything following the success of that film, yet Inside Llewyn Davis might be the most accessibly academic film to hit art house cinemas this year. It’s grand and smart, featuring a unique appreciation for body, atmosphere, and character. All it needs is a set of elbow patches for its tweed blazer, and Llewyn Davis could lecture at the academy.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Inside Llewyn Davis opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on December 26.