The sounds of the early 1960s folk music revival float on the air like a strange, intoxicating perfume in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a boldly original, highly emotional journey through Greenwich Village nightclubs, a bleak New York winter, and one man’s fraught efforts to reconcile his life and his art. A product of the same deeply personal end of the Coens’ filmmaking spectrum previously responsible for the likes of “Barton Fink” and “A Serious Man,” this darkly comic musical drama with an elliptical narrative and often brusque protagonist won’t corral the same mass audience as “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit.” But strong reviews — for the pic itself and its stupendous soundtrack — should make this December release an awards-season success for distrib CBS Films.
As they did with the 1940s Hollywood setting of “Barton Fink,” the Coens have again taken a real time and place and freely made it their own, drawing on actual persons and events for inspiration, but binding themselves only to their own bountiful imaginations. The result is a movie that neatly avoids the problems endemic to most period movies — and biopics in particular — in favor of a playful, evocatively subjective reality. Perhaps most surprising to some viewers will be the pic’s surfeit of something the Coens have sometimes been accused of lacking: deep, heartfelt sincerity.
Cannes audiences just heard a clean, hard crack: the sound of the Coen brothers hitting one out of the park. Their new film is brilliantly written, terrifically acted, superbly designed and shot; it's a sweet, sad, funny picture about the lost world of folk music which effortlessly immerses us in the period.
The musical interludes are stunningly achieved: a pastiche chart single about President Kennedy and the moon mission brought the crowd I was among close to bopping in the aisles. This has something of Woody Allen movies like Sweet and Lowdown and Broadway Danny Rose; there's a playful allusion to Breakfast at Tiffany's and even a weird casting echo of Walter Salles's On the Road — and this movie is incidentally everything that dull film wasn't. But it is through-and-through a Coen brothers film, as pungent as hot black coffee.
Inside Llewyn Davis recounts a desolate week in the life of a fictional singer-songwriter of pre-Judas folk music in early-1960s New York: Llewyn Davis — a quietly angry, depressed and penniless young man, dragging his guitar from apartment to apartment, sleeping on couches, annoying everyone, unsure whether to continue in a world that does not understand him, and preparing to abandon his dream and returning to work in the merchant marine. There comes a time with any artist, when failure has become too painful and losses have to be cut. Has that time come for Llewyn Davis?
He is played with cool, shrewd, watchful restraint by Oscar Isaac, with longish black hair and an unkempt beard, looking for all the world like a young Martin Scorsese. The name "Llewyn" with its Welsh associations, of course deftly brings the word "Dylan" into our minds, although the question whether Llewyn is supposed to be a specific fictional variant of the great troubadour is resolved in the final moments. It could also, at a second subconscious remove, suggest the doomed figure of Dylan Thomas, who succumbed to celebrity and hard liquor in the United States.
The Coen brothers are in vintage form in their new feature Inside Llewyn Davies. What is most impressive about the film (a premiere in the Cannes competition at the weekend) is the sure-footed way the Coens combine comedy, music and brooding film noir elements. This is ostensibly a film about the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early 1960s, just before the coming of Bob Dylan, but it is far richer than such a description might suggest.
Llewyn Davis (brilliantly played by Oscar Isaac) is an ambitious but hapless folk singer with a very chaotic private life. He has seemingly made fellow folk singer Jean Berkey (an enjoyably spiky Carey Mulligan, moving on from her role as Daisy in The Great Gatsby) pregnant. She is in a relationship with a friend of his (played in solemn fashion by Justin Timberlake) and is furious at the predicament he has put her in.
The structure of the film seems partially inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses. The story is set in the dead of winter over only a few days but still has an epic quality. Like Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s novel, Davis ricochets around the city, having misadventures. He loses a friend’s cat. He has nowhere to stay. Needing a gig, he eventually heads off to Chicago on a road trip with a thoroughly obnoxious jazz musician (John Goodman) and his Dean Moriarty-like sidekick (Garrett Hedlund.)
It's been 13 years since Joel and Ethan Coen gave us the bluegrass energy of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and now they've jumped forward 30 years to 1961 and the folk music scene of Greenwich Village with Inside Llewyn Davis, a film so perfect it appears almost effortless. Opening in the Gaslight Cafe, the film's title character croons on stage under the soft glow of the spotlight, capturing the attention of the audience to the point one man's cigarette is only a bent stick of ashes, defying gravity as he looks on without moving.
As an audience member, this scene, captured beautifully by director of photography Bruno Delbonnel, immediately places you in the time and place. Over the next 105 minutes we'll follow Lleywn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he moves from couch to couch, looking for a place to escape the cold New York winter as he hopes to fulfill his dream to make it as a musician in a world that doesn't seem ready for what his songs have to say.
The Coens' used the life and music of iconic folk musician Dave Van Ronk and his memoir "The Mayor of MacDougal Street" as the primary source material for their story. In doing so, the fictional Llewyn Davis captures the mood of an era where many an artist has been overlooked while laying the tracks for artists such as Bob Dylan and others like him. The great thing is this isn't some sort of a musical history lesson. In fact, it's a rather heartfelt drama loaded with dark comedy, but for the most part it's just a brief moment in time captured on film and it's one hell of a lovely picture.
Inside Llewyn Davis is stripped down and laid to bare as Llewyn bounces from house-to-house, crashing with the likes of Jim and Jean Berkey (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) and the Gorfeins on the Upper West Side, parents to Llewyn's one-time partner in their duo act, Timlin & Davis. Now on his own, Llewyn is struggling as a solo act with a manager uninterested in helping him any more than he has to.
And from the cold New York streets to the just-as-cold streets of Chicago, Llewyn hitches a ride with Garrett Hedlund (who grunts more than speaks and not very often at that) at the wheel and a passed out John Goodman in the back. It's here, in the Windy City you get one of the most deliciously Coen-esque moments of the film as Llewyn performs for a local club owner played by F. Murray Abraham. Debonnel's lighting is on point and Isaac's vocals fill the room with perfect clarity. The camera slowly zooms in, Davis' voice swells and Abraham delivers the line of the film, but I won't be spoiling that here.
The applause for Joel and Ethan Coen’s wonderful new film, a comedy in a melancholic key called “Inside Llewyn Davis,” started someplace around the midway mark. Prompted by the hilariously inane “Please Please Mr. Kennedy,” sung by Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver — who play three bearded 1961 folkies warbling and strumming through a space-race ditty — the Cannes audience started to laugh and clap. By the time the film ended, the clapping, laughing and whooping critics at the 66th Cannes Film Festival were over the moon.
What a relief! After days and nights of rain puddling on the red carpet and grim tidings darkening the screens, the Coens delivered both much-needed levity and an expressive, piercing story about artistic struggle. Mr. Isaac, wearing a deadpan expression that wavers between the soulful and soul-sick, plays Llewyn, a New York folk musician groping to find his existential way in the turbulent wake of a tragedy. With his guitar and bitterness, lofty principles and light wallet, Llewyn is barely scraping by, taking low-paying gigs and crashing on couches. His most recent album, which shares the film’s title, has gone nowhere and he’s spiraling after it rapidly.
The movie opens with him performing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in a Greenwich Village nightclub in which the air is thick with smoke and sincerity, his warmly alive tenor offering a touching contrast to the tune’s fatalism. It’s a traditional song that was covered by, among others, the folk revivalist Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002) and appears on his album “Inside Dave Van Ronk.” The as-told-to book by Van Ronk and Elijah Wald, “The Mayor of Macdougal Street: A Memoir,” partly inspired the Coens, who, as they did in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” also playfully, sometimes pointedly have drawn on Homer’s “Odyssey.” Soon after Llewyn finishes the song, he steps into an alley and receives a bad beating, the first in many punishments on what proves a long, difficult road.