Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Portrait of a struggling, stubborn folksinger in 1961 New York is a Coen Brothers triumph, and one of the year's best films.

As the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom revealed earlier this year, talent doesn’t necessarily lead to fame. Inside Llewyn Davis, the brilliant new film from Joel and Ethan Coen, offers up an especially hard case: a gifted musician whose refusal to compromise could still win him some admiration if he weren’t so bitter, angry and unwittingly self-defeating. Llewyn Davis may not be the most likeable fellow in the Coen canon, but his personal struggle in the 1961 New York City folk-music scene is so vividly etched, he’s among their most compelling.

The film opens with Llewyn (breakout star Oscar Isaac) onstage at Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Café singing a complete version of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a traditional song associated with Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir is an inspiration for the film. Minutes later, Llewyn is getting beaten up in the alley behind the club by a mysterious stranger. And that’s just the start of his troubles—or the culmination, in the movie’s circular time scheme.

Over the course of the story, Llewyn’s dependence on the kindness of others (mainly for a place to crash) will reach its limit. His sister Joy (Jeanine Serralles) has had enough of his condescending putdowns of her comfortable suburban life. His onetime lover Jean (Carey Mulligan) can’t hide her contempt, especially now that she’s pregnant and blames his carelessness. (“Everything you touch turns to shit, like King Midas’ idiot brother,” she hisses.) His most supportive friends are Columbia University academics Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), but he manages to lose their cat while leaving their apartment one morning.

Llewyn’s independently released album Inside Llewyn Davis is a flop, and he puts all his future hope into a meeting with Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a major producer and manager based in Chicago. To get there, he offers to share cross-country driving chores and gas expenses with handicapped, acid-tongued junkie jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his taciturn companion Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). The trio doesn’t quite get to Chicago intact, but Llewyn does succeed in cornering Grossman, who patiently listens to him perform and frankly assesses, “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

Like the Coens’ other music-driven tale O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Inside Llewyn Davis is an episodic quasi-picaresque whose details provide a flavorful portrait of a subculture. The brothers clearly know the pre-Bob Dylan folk scene and its mélange of influences, from plaintive Appalachian ballads to preppie covers, from Delta blues to protest songs. A hilarious sequence has Llewyn joining Jean’s singing partner Jim (Justin Timberlake) and faux cowboy Al Cody (Adam Driver of “Girls”) for a studio recording of a Space Age novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” (complete with bizarre vocal interjections from a spacy Al). Llewyn, of course, rashly opts for a flat fee rather than a cut of royalties.

Though Llewyn is often unsympathetic and sometimes downright abrasive, Isaac’s magnetic performance (and his obvious musical talent) keeps us invested in his quest and hopeful that he’ll get a break. And the Coens keep things lively by surrounding him with a colorful gallery of true characters; their canny eye for casting even the smallest roles with idiosyncratic types recalls the great Preston Sturges. Mulligan spits out her insults with amusing ferocity, Max Casella makes a memorably sleazy club manager, and Stark Sands drolly underplays his role as straight-arrow folksinger/soldier Troy Nelson, a character loosely based on Tom Paxton. Goodman, as so often happens, steals all his scenes as the irrepressible, uninhibited Turner, whose handicap recalls legendary songwriter/performer Doc Pomus.

For all their verbal dexterity, the Coens are also immaculate filmmakers. The precise compositions and gorgeous lighting of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie) justly earned a New York Film Critics prize, and Jess Gonchor’s period production design on location in New York, Chicago and in between is spot-on. As with O Brother, T Bone Burnett served as music supervisor, and his choices are as pleasurable to listen to as the film is to watch. Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen Brothers’ best films, which is high recommendation indeed.