Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel & Ethan Coen
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
Release date: January 16th, 2014
Distributor: CBS Films
Running time: 105 minutes
Best part: The memorable soundtrack.
Worst part: The abrupt resolutions.
Movies about music, due to an artist, movement, or genre’s immense popularity, regularly take on lives of their own. Launching cult classics, trends, and modern re-inventions, these movies range from musicals (Dreamgirls), to dramas (Walk the Line, Ray), to comedies (Oh Brother Where Art Thou!). Despite aiding specific movies’ soundtracks, how exactly does music launch certain big-budget efforts into the cultural stratosphere? Tapping into pop-culture’s infatuation with nostalgia and popularity, Inside Llewyn Davis chronicles one genre’s immersion into the public’s line of sight. Folk music’s long-awaited return to the spotlight is illuminated in this hysterical, insightful, and charming dramedy. Kicked off by chart-topping groups like Of Monsters and Men, Mumford and Sons, and Passenger, folk music’s resurgence has boosted the once-neglected genre’s range, influence, and relevance.
Despite being a polarising genre, folk brings ageless intricacies and nuances to this kinetic slice-of-life character study. Here, music, love, life, and regret interweave to form an eclectic and meaningful rhythm. Inside Llewyn Davis, bolstered by ingenious performances, poetic directorial flourishes, and, of course, a catchy soundtrack, becomes one of the past decade’s most distinctive dramedies. Touching upon music’s profound social and cultural impact, this movie speaks to the toe-tapping samaritan inside us all. This purposeful narrative chronicles insatiably irritating yet well-meaning simpleton, and former merchant seaman, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). After his musical partner’s catastrophic suicide, Davis struggles to make ends meet. Crashing on friends’ couches or random periods, job prospects run afoul of Davis’ abrasive personality. With downtown club ‘the Gaslight Cafe’ keeping him afloat, burgeoning crowds and unique musicians frustrate Davis. Davis finds a new partner after his friends’ cat escapes from their cluttered apartment. Davis and his feline companion scurry across New York looking for shelter and company. Keeping out of the cold, Davis soon finds sanctuary in his musician friends’ apartment. Briefly staying with Jim (Justin Timberlake), Jean (Carey Mulligan), and their other guest Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), Davis witnesses Jim and Jean become Peter, Paul & Mary-esque Gaslight celebrities. However, Davis, thanks to his irritable agent Mel (the late Jerry Grayson), sleazy Gaslight owner Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella), and friend Al Cody (Adam Driver), hatches an ambitious plan to travel to Chicago. Reaching for a ground-breaking opportunity in the windy city, Davis comes across Johnny Five (Garett Headlund) and crippled jazz extraordinaire Roland Turner (John Goodman).
Though writer/producer/director maestros Joel and Ethan Coen need no introduction, I’m going to give them one anyway. The Coens, ever since Blood Simple shocked film-lovers across the world, have drenched themselves in blood, sweat, laughs, existential angst, and Middle America’s most unique musical movements. The dynamic duo’s range, richness, and tenacity are evident in every project. The Coens, leaping from westerns (No Country for Old Men, True Grit), to hardened gangster flicks (Millers Crossing), to sickeningly dark comedies (Burn After Reading, The Big Lebowski), to frenetic dramedies (A Serious Man, Fargo), place their hearts, souls, and perspectives into each narrative. Their polarising yet compelling efforts, despite the cloying moments, launch horrifying sequences and ambiguous characterisations into the consciousness. Fusing classic and modern Hollywood cinema conventions, their honest direction and ambitious writing tropes shine throughout Inside Llewyn Davis. Giving bluegrass roots a heaving kick-start with Oh Brother Where Art Thou!, the Coens apply their talents and wisdom to the opportunistic folk scene. Fortunately, despite the dour marketing campaign, this slice-of-life drama, from go to woe, is a winning, thought-provoking, and modest examination of the human condition. Pitting man against the cold weather, lacklustre employment prospects, fate, and the future’s ever-looming uncertainty, the Coens inject heart into this comedically callous journey. With slapstick humour and shocking expletives highlighting the first-half’s kinetic formula, the movie kicks off with style, panache, and grace. Moving from one underwhelming destination to another, Davis’ journey is one of heartache, self-discovery, and determination. However, the second half becomes a philosophically powerful yet sombre road-trip-based adventure. Meeting peculiar characters and bizarre revelations, the final third slowly sheds the first two thirds’ malevolent wit and optimistic aura. Ultimately, the Coen’s latest effort discusses our infatuation with varying entertainment mediums. Genres and movements are ably presented as impressive creations crafted by inspiring artists. Here, Davis and co. craft life-changing works out of impulse, burgeoning motivations, and extraordinary ideas.
“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” (Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), Inside Llewyn Davis).
Refusing to answer its thesis by the half-way mark, Inside Llewyn Davis hurriedly delves into pop-culture’s fascination with nostalgia. Davis and co’s mental, spiritual, and emotional angst paints a haunting picture of the past, present, and future. Nostalgia may bring back fond memories, but won’t play a show-stopping track or put a coat around Davis’ shoulders. The Coen’s statements are illuminated by the movie’s awe-inspiring and memorable musical interludes. Describing key moments of this all-encompassing narrative, the soundtrack is crafted out of love, admiration, and care for this immaculate genre. Conceived by the Coens, Isaac, T-Bone Burnett, and Marcus Mumford, Inside Llewyn Davis becomes a quirky and enlightening musical minus the genre’s insufferable tropes. From the opening frame, music plays a vital part in emphasising and re-shaping 1960s-America’s social, political, economical, and cultural landscapes. The first track, ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, is a distinctive, impactful, and poetic gut-punch. With Isaac’s haunting vocals carving into the soul, the track potently and engagingly examines Davis’ existential and emotional conflicts. Fortunately, the seceding musical numbers elevate the moody and eclectic material. Yet another Coen Brothers classic is humanised by its characters. Davis, though prickly and distinctively sarcastic, is a strangely likeable presence. Slimily weaving into friends’ lives, this irritable and harmful musician follows a dingy path. Isaac, placing egotism and aura aside, is revelatory in this complex role. Mulligan provides another touching and multi-layered performance as the dismissive friend. Throwing expletives and criticisms at our bewildered antihero, Jean is an exasperating and unconscionable character. Suitably, David and Jean deliver twists, turns, and haunting lyrics. Meanwhile, Timberlake builds charisma and range as the blissful nice-guy. Timberlake, Isaac, and Driver deliver the movie’s most enlightening musical number. ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’, featuring stirling vocals and electrifying lyrics, provides refreshing relief from this heart-wrenching tale. Once again, Goodman electrifies a small yet significant role. Throwing hysterical insults at Davis, his character revels in life’s most intriguing pursuits and absurdities. His comedic lines (“Folk songs? I thought you said you were a musician?”) relieve this dark road-trip story.
With the Coens up for Oscar contention yet again, Inside Llewyn Davis, like its lead character, deserves some much-needed love and care. As a concentrated dose of Coen-Brothers-moviemaking tropes, Coen fans, film buffs, folk aficionados, and average filmgoers will absorb this visceral and confronting dramedy. Laugh-out-loud moments, attention to detail, and tenderness transform this slice-of-life drama into an infectious and award-worthy artistic endeavour. Like the best folk songs, Inside Llewyn Davis‘ poeticism, narrative, and inherent charm will put a song in everyone’s hearts.