Over the past twenty-nine years, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have created a memorable cast of characters, ranging from the irresistibly mellow Dude in The Big Lebowski to the malevolent and bizarrely coiffed killer Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. To this unforgettable gallery of rogues, losers and naïfs can be added folk singer Llewyn Davis, the protagonist of their brilliant new movie Inside Llewyn Davis.
The year is 1961, and New York’s Greenwich Village is the epicenter of a blossoming folk music scene. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Phil Ochs are just a few of the legendary artists who will soon emerge from this rich musical melting pot. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac in a star-making performance) is a talented singer-songwriter but his career is going nowhere fast. Through a mixture of bad timing, bad behavior and bad luck, success seems always destined to be just beyond his reach. When Llewyn is first introduced, his immediate priority is to find a couch. Homeless, he has been steadily couch-surfing across New York.
His routine has recently been thrown off because sleeping on his favorite couch in the apartment of his best friends, Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), has grown more complicated since he got Jean pregnant. This crisis, and an ornery cat, soon propels Llewyn onto a crucial journey that starts out being just across the city but eventually leads him cross-country in his pursuit of fame and fortune on his own terms. As anyone who has seen O Brother Where Art Thou? can attest, the Coen brothers are fans of classical literature and many of their stories take the traditional form of the hero’s journey. Of course, the hero in a Coen movie is likely to find him or herself in some pretty quirky places. Llewyn’s wild journey, and steadfast refusal to compromise his artistic ideals, eventually leads him back to where he began but perhaps with a deeper understanding of himself.
Inside Llewyn Davis finds the Coens working in the quieter and more realistic range of their cinematic spectrum but the film is delightfully leavened by their famed sense of humor. A wonderfully scurrilous monologue by a scary jazz musician (beautifully played by Coen brothers’ alum John Goodman) explaining why someone is an idiot—because he committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge when everyone knows you are supposed to use the Brooklyn Bridge—is hilariously magnificent.
The recreation of the 1960s folk music scene is picture-perfect, and even more importantly note-perfect, thanks to a fantastic soundtrack from O Brother Where Art Thou? music producer T-Bone Burnett. Each song perfectly evokes this special moment in music history. However, the film’s immersion into folk music really goes far deeper because in many ways the movie itself feels like a folk song. It is an alternately poetic and bluntly honest evocation of a man whose personal demons are what makes him a powerful artist but also keep him from fulfilling his dreams.
Coming to a theater near you, Inside Llewyn Davis is scheduled for release December 6th.