Directed by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Starring: Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis), Carey Mulligan (Jean), Justin Timberlake (Jim), Ethan Phillips (Mitch Gorfein), Robin Bartlett (Lillian Gorfein), Max Casella (Pappi Corsicato), Jerry Grayson (Mel Novikoff), Jeanine Serralles (Joy), Adam Driver (Al Cody), Stark Sands (Troy Nelson), John Goodman (Roland Turner), Garrett Hedlund (Johnny Five), Alex Karpovsky (Marty Green), Helen Hong (Janet Fung), Bradley Mott (Joe Flom), F. Murray Abraham (Bud Grossman), Nancy Blake (Elizabeth Hobby), Stephen Payne (Mr. Hobby), Stan Carp (Hugh Davis).
The Coen brothers are, to me anyway, the greatest filmmakers working in the world right now. For 30 years now, they have worked at a pace of roughly a film every other year, and while they have their share of failures, for the most part theirs is a remarkable consistent filmography. In a way being so consistent hurts the Coens – to a certain extent, they almost seem to have lost their ability to surprise some people. But their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis – which joins the ranks of their absolute best – surprised me more than anything they have done in years – and for a very simple reason. For the first time ever, I found myself in tears during a Coen brothers movie.
The movie takes place in 1961 in the New York folk scene. The title character, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac) is a working folk singer, appearing over and over at the Gaslight Café for a share of the “hat” the performers pass around after their set. He sleeps on a different couch seemingly every night. As is clear from the film’s opening scene – a stirring rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” sung with only the aid of his guitar, Llewyn is a talented performer – it’s an extremely moving version of the song, which the Coens shoot in one long take. As is made clear in the scene immediately following – when Llewyn gets off stage – his is also kind of a prick. Llewyn is the type of guy that someone will wait in an alley just to beat up, and when eventually we find out the reason why he’s been beat up, you also have to admit he kind of deserves it. The movie then loops back to tell us how Llewyn ended up in that alley – and it’s another of the Coens odysseys of misery – where Llewyn has one thing after another piled on top of him.
I can hear some Coen detractors groaning already. Another odyssey of misery? While it’s true that the Coens have done this type of thing before, they have never done it in quite this way before either. Llewyn Davis is not Barton Fink – the weak willed, sniveling intellectual who thinks himself to be the “voice of the working man” – but in reality has no idea who the working man is even when he’s directly confronted by it. Barton Fink was a talentless hack. Llewyn Davis is not talentless. All the musical scenes in the movie back that up – whether he’s singing Hang Me, Oh Hang Me or The Death of Queen Anne or Dink’s Song, or even when simply harmonizing on a throw away joke song like Please Mr. Kennedy – Llewyn’s talent comes across every time he picks up a guitar and sings to the audience. Also unlike Fink, Llewyn is not a phony – he has worked as a merchant marine, and was raised by one, so when he sings about the working man, he’s doing so from a position of hard won experience. Nor is Llewyn Larry Gopnik – the protagonist of the Coens A Serious Man – a modern day Job, who is confronted with one misery after another because he is cursed (perhaps by an long dead ancestor who let a Dyybuk into the house) – who is tested and tempted to do the wrong thing over and over again, and resists until the very last scene, where he may bring upon the Apocalypse with his action. Unlike poor Larry, Llewyn is not being tested by a high power nor is he blameless in the misery that befalls him. Llewyn Davis brings much of the misery on himself. If he wasn’t such an asshole, he would probably be a lot happier.
But Llewyn is an asshole. We see it in the way he looks at contempt at a singer like Troy Nelson (the hilariously, relentlessly chipper Stark Sands) or even his purported “friends” Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) – all of whom have careers that are going better than Llewyn’s, and all of whom sing a more mainstream, pop folk style. Jean is mad at Llewyn from the beginning of the movie – sometime before the movie began they had sex, and now she’s pregnant and wants an abortion just in case it’s his and not Jim’s (which angers her even more that she may have to get rid of a “perfectly good baby” because of Llewyn). We see it in the way he treats the Gorfeins – an older couple, Professors who are kind enough to take Llewyn in from time to time – and whose cat Llewyn mistakenly ends up with for a time. And we see it in the way he treats his sister – who really is only trying to help. This is Llewyn’s pattern – he’s an asshole to even those few people who can still stand him, and those seem to be dwindling. Part of Llewyn’s behavior can be explained by his old partner’s recent suicide – Llewyn refuses to talk about him, but every time their signature song “Dink’s Song” is played, the memory of him is pronounced. But part of it is simply Llewyn being Llewyn.
Yet, in large part due to Oscar Isaac’s remarkable performance, Llewyn never really loses our sympathy. He’s an asshole, but he’s one that I begrudgingly liked – and through the course of the movie even grew to love. Part of it is the contrast that the Coens draw between the beauty of what Llewyn does on stage (which to someone like me, who loves this type of music, is wonderful) and the havoc he causes in his personal life. But part of it to is Isaac’s performance – which is a surprisingly sincere one for a performance at the center of a Coen movie. You may not always like Llewyn Davis – but you always understand him – he’s an asshole, but a recognizably human asshole and he creates great art.
The rest of the performances are top notch as well – even if they are, by design, relatively brief. Carey Mulligan is a tower of bitterness and rage all of it directed at Llewyn is almost every scene in the film – but there is a tender one near the end that shows that even she cannot quite bring herself to hate him. Justin Timberlake wonderfully plays off his ultra-cool image, playing Jean’s husband Jim as a chipper square. Stark Sands is relentlessly cheerful and sincere to a fault. Adam Driver is hilarious as Al Cody – especially in his introductory scene playing alongside Jim and Llewyn on Please Mr. Kennedy, doing a bunch of strange vocal tricks – his character could be the star of an entirely different Coen brothers movie. John Goodman has a brief, but memorable turn, as a junkie jazz musician – espousing wisdom in between bouts of sleep. Garret Hedlund, either by accident or design, is playing the opposite role than the one he had in Walter Salles’ On the Road from last year – where he play the Neal Cassidy role, but this time the road trip he’s on is the opposite of romantic. F. Murray Abraham has one devastating scene that sets in motion the final, heartbreaking act of the film – and surprisingly underplays it (subtlety never being what Abraham is known for). As with all Coen brothers films, even the smallest roles are populated by interesting faces and actors – some like Llewyn’s agent seemingly teleported in from a Woody Allen movie – and other like Stan Carp as Llewyn’s father wearing a lifetime of hard work on their face without saying a word. This may well be the best ensemble cast of the year.
As is always the case with a Coen brothers movie, the film is also one of the best looking of the year. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (who worked with the Coens on their short as part of Paris Je T’Aime) is brilliant – from the smoky clubs, to the cold and desolate Manhattan most of the movie takes place in, which has been drained of its usual romanticism, to the even colder open road on the way to Chicago and back. The production design and costume feel authentic to the era, and the music by T-Bone Burnett is perfect.
Now back to those tears I mentioned. They came to me during Llewyn’s last performance – where he’s finally able to bring himself to play his signature song with his old partner Mike in its entirety for the first time in the movie. Yet, they have their roots further back then that – in the performance Llewyn gives from F. Murray Abraham, and his devastating response, and the performance Llewyn gives for his father. These are all musical moments, which is when the movie is at its best and most emotional – and the cumulative power of these moments finally overwhelmed me. Right after this performance, the Coens show what in a different movie, told from a different perspective may well have been the opening scene in a more traditional biopic. You can dismiss it as a stunt or joke if you want, but it’s surprisingly effective here – it’s the Coens letting us know that history really will be made here, just not by Llewyn.