The Coen brothers have been called many things: “playful provocateurs,” “consummate nihilists,” “true originals,” etc. One title that has perhaps been conspicuously missing is “a belated voice of their generation.” Having been born in 1954 and 1957 respectively, the Coens were born right in the middle of the baby boom, a fact that’s become increasingly clear in their films as of late. Their last two films were, after all, a remake of a John Wayne film and an autobiographical film about (among other things) what it was like to listen to Jefferson Airplane on a transistor radio during Hebrew classes. Looking elsewhere in their filmography you see all sorts of tributes to the pop culture of their youth including film noirs, Ealing comedies, and American roots music. Hell, even the film of theirs that is most beloved by younger generations (The Big Lebowski) heavily involves the rantings of an old Vietnam veteran. As such, it was perhaps inevitable that they’d one day make a film about the ground zero of Baby Boomer culture: the Grenich Village folk scene. And with their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, they’ve done just that.
Set in 1961 (shortly before folk music entered the mainstream) the film unsurprisingly examines the life of a man named Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac). Davis is a talented, but not overly successful, folk singer who’s recently struggled to establish a solo career after the death of a former collaborator named Mike Timlin. Davis’ life is a bit of a mess; he has no permanent residence and must crash at other people’s homes every night, which is difficult because he’s a prickly character who tends to burn every bridge that’s extended to him. A former lover of his named Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan) has recently told him that she’s pregnant, but she wants nothing more to do with him and is now with another folkie named Jim (Justin Timberlake), who’s friendlier and potentially more successful, but perhaps not Davis’ artistic equal. Things really start to go wrong for Davis one morning after he wakes up at one of the apartment he’s crashing in and accidentally allows the owner’s cat to escape right as the door locks behind him. This forces Davis to carry the cat along with him as he goes on a sort of three day odyssey to put his life back together or die trying.
More than anything, Inside Llewyn Davis feels like a companion piece to the Coen brothers’ 2009 film A Serious Man, which was a movie that took me a couple watches to really “get” but which I’ve come to really like. I don’t just say that because both films are set in the 60s and have similarly dry tones, rather, I say that because they seem to be two sides of the same cynical coin. A Serious Man was about a man who has a whole lot of bad things happen to him even though he was a fundamentally good person. Inside Llewyn Davis is a little different; its main character probably isn’t a monster or anything, but he does a have a rather self-destructive personality. I don’t mean “self-destructive” in the sense of drugs or booze, more that pretty much everything he touches seems to turn to shit because he makes a lot of selfish decision and tends to push away those who might otherwise be helpful to him out of a sort of misguided sense of pride. If Larry Gopnik’s plight in A Serious Man was Job-like, Llewyn Davis’ problems seem almost karmic in nature, a fact that’s sort of backed up by the film’s cyclical structure.
I wouldn’t call the film a “musical,” because that label implies that the music more than anything is the draw and I don’t think that’s the case here. However, songs are played in their entirety at certain points and it is also essential to the film’s plot that the audience believes that Llewyn Davis to be a credible talent. As such the Coens have brought in T. Bone Burnett, the architect of the Grammy winning soundtrack to the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou, to make sure the music here is up to snuff. I wouldn’t call this film’s soundtrack a revelation per se, and I don’t think it will have quiet the commercial success of the last Coen/Burnett production, in part because I think 60s folk music has been mined a bit more heavily over the years than 30s bluegrass. That said, the material that Burnett has found works well in the movie and has created a very believable repertoire for Llewyn Davis. Credit should also be given to Oscar Issac and the other actors for performing these songs with gusto.
Inside Llewyn Davis is simply one of the best depictions of the “starving artist” I’ve seen. It does a really good job of generating a certain amount of sympathy for its lead character even as he does unlikable things. I also really like the way it recreates the 60s without glamorizing it and making it seem “groovier” than it really was. Also, while it’s one of the Coens’ less overtly comedic films, the brothers’ signature wit does underlie every scene of the film and keeps it entertaining even though it has a pretty cold and quiet tone. The Coen brothers are so consistently strong that they can sometimes be taken for granted. It’s easy to see a movie like this and simply declare “they’ve done it again,” and then move on. That perhaps does a disservice to their accomplishments. Movies like this are not easy to make and they deserve to be appreciated when they come along.
**** out of Four