By Mike Dub
Inside Llewyn Davis is a difficult film to write about. It is so rich, clever, and unexpected that to provide virtually any detail at all would be to rob the reader of the pleasure of discovering the film on their own. Normally, you would reserve such declarations for police mysteries or espionage thrillers, so it is doubly impressive that Llewyn Davis is a modest comedy-drama, completely absent of murder and intrigue. It is simply the brilliantly told story of a fictional folk singer in New York City in 1961.
That singer, of course, is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling performer who was modestly successful for a brief time back when he sang in a duo. However, his partner is no longer in the picture, and Llewyn is struggling as a solo act. He sings and plays beautifully, but he has an artist’s narcissistic sensibility that tips over into self-destruction.
He doesn’t seem capable of emotional attachment, and consequently he is hell-bent on keeping anyone from attaching to him. He is obnoxious, selfish, and prone to making the worst decision. He leaves a window open while cat-sitting. A close friend needs him, so he skips town. When some rich friends at a dinner party coerce him into playing for them, he chooses a song that has a personal meaning that they couldn’t possibly appreciate, which leads to an explosion of anger and tears.
However, Llewyn Davis is not a repulsive character by any means, despite being an asshole. Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen excel at creating lowly outsiders and making us care about them, and Oscar Isaac is magnetic in the lead role. The Coens infuse him with charisma, and Isaac’s performance is quiet and masterfully sensitive. In his hands, Davis is not so much loathsome as he is merely lost and helpless, clinging desperately to a naive faith in his talent.
Davis is such a sharply realized character that it’s easy to forget the film is a period piece. The Coens use 1961 New York City as a backdrop, and nothing more; consequently, that world comes alive. There is nothing forced about the setting, no pedantic cues to constantly remind us where we are: no Kennedy speeches, no headlines about the Bay of Pigs invasion, people aren’t awestruck by the wondrous power of their first television set, no civil rights marches or miniskirts. It is a world of surfing couches, bumming cigarettes, and trying to find the next gig.
The music – it must be mentioned – is wonderful, even if it is not quite one hundred percent authentic in its delivery. Isaac has a beautiful voice, with a lot of range and soul. But there is a faintly modern quality to most of the songs, a little more soulful than most of the folk songs of the time (the exception, oddly, is the spot-on novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy”). Still, the songs themselves are folk music treasures. It’s a pleasure to watch them performed, especially because most of Isaac’s solo performances seem to have been recorded as he plays them on-screen, rather than in a recording studio and lip-synced.
But even above the performances, the visuals, and the music, Inside Llewyn Davis provides the greatest pleasure possible while watching a movie: we never know where it’s going. Every time it has the chance to move in a predictable direction, it breaks another way. A typical dramatic hero may force meaningful confrontations upon people close to him, may perform some sort of trite act of redemption, and may even find his entire life come down to a single moment of triumph or failure.
Llewyn Davis is not that guy, and Inside Llewyn Davis is not that movie. For Llewyn Davis, life goes on.