One-line review: A talented folk singer’s losing hustle to make it, thanks to mostly him getting in his way.

Let us be clear that there would be no Inside Llewyn Davis without Oscar Isaac. Even the Coens admit that they thought the film’s lead was uncastable after a slew of auditions.  It was impossible to find an actor who could carry the movie (he is in every frame) while also being a bonafide musician (several songs are sung entirely). And then Oscar Isaac, also a musician, auditioned. The Coens recollect the film’s music producer, T Bone Burnett, telling them they were lucky after he watched Oscar Isaac’s audition tapes.

The film is loosely based on Dave Van Rock and his autobiography, Mayor of McDougal Steer. Van Rock was a major force credited with reviving folk music in NYC’s Greenwich scene in the sixties until a young unknown by the name of Bob Dylan brought his unique style, eclipsing everyone. The Coens say the first germ of the idea for the film began with them thinking, what if someone beat up Dave Van Rock behind a club, and why would that happen? They mulled over it for a couple of years until the film took shape.

The film is about the talented folk singer Llewyn Davis, who finds himself left behind as the rest of the folk scene moves on to more modern stuff. He sleeps on his friends’ couches and barely makes a living. But Llewyn is a straight shooter and often is his own worst enemy. The film is structured like a folk song, a loop, where the opening scene reappears at the end.  

The film follows Llewyn’s hustle for a few days, where we see his life going from bad to worse. First, he is responsible for his friend John’s wife, Jean’s pregnancy, and must take care of her abortion. On top of that, he loses his regular hosts, the Gorfeins,’ cat. Next, we see him getting humiliated by many, including a mysterious jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman), who gives him a ride. Finally, the last nail in the coffin is the great Bud Grossman (a real-life manager whose clients included Bob Dylan) telling him after hearing him sing that Llewyn did not have a solo career in him. Llewyn to call it quits and join the merchant marines, but several missteps thwart those plans too. The film ends with him taking a blow to his chin from a man whose wife Llewyn heckled the previous night, but Llewyn smiles defiantly at life, almost enjoying his pain. Oscar Isaac, in an interview, says Llewyn would rather fail than succeed because it is more authentic. 

The film’s mood is a deep melancholy yet tinged with the ferocity of the struggle. However, it is not all gloom; Llewyn gives it as bad as he gets it, or is it vice versa? Isaac makes us warm to an unlikeable character like Llewyn, who does not ingratiate himself to anyone despite being a performer. He even says no to Bud Grossman when he asks Llewyn if he wants to be part of a three-person act. But the Coens deftly allow several nuggets of goodness to spring from Llewyn, without his knowledge, that make us root for him. For example, he always puts up with Jean’s insults, feeds the cat, is genuinely repentant for abusing his hosts’ hospitality, is deeply grieving his friend’s suicide, and is uncompromising about authenticity.    

Music is an integral part of the film, and who else than T Bone Burnett to produce it? He also roped in Marcus Mumford to contemporize it. Justin Timberlake, who too was involved in making the music, demonstrates his range by being both the tenor and bass in a Hundred miles and the Auld triangle, respectively. For a layperson like me, the movie’s music is all heart, like the folk music of that time, and set to simple melodies (The John Goodman character makes fun of Llewyn that folk music only uses three notes at the most). 

Bruno Delbonel’s camera work captures the essence of the movie and the times, melancholic yet with anticipation of change around the corner. The film’s tone is inspired by the iconic record cover of the Freewheeling Bob Dylan, where we see Dylan walking with then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo on his arm, huddled in the cold with his light jacket. What better way to invoke nostalgia? The Coens writing is masterful even if you do not understand it. For example, the flurry of words coming out of Roland Turner’s (John Goodman) mouth is incomprehensible but transfixing. The film’s dialogue is sparse yet biting like its lead.

The review will not be complete without another tip of the hat to Oscar Isaac’s performance, who manages to get inside Llewyn Davis and inhabit him. Isaac says he lived his life preparing for this part. He even took lessons from acclaimed movement coach Moni Yakim, who told him that his movements would be influenced by his instrument: the guitar. The supporting cast is equally top-notch. Who knew an ethereal Carrey Mulligan could spew such vitriol as Jean? Or call her illicit lover, Davis, an asshole so musically? Timberlake is a natural in his minor role as a “good” and naive musician and Jean’s husband, Jim (a real-life musical couple). Adam Driver deftly pulls off the caricaturish role of a musician unaware of how silly his chorus singing sounds. The Coens’ staple John Goodman is so annoyingly good that we feel Llewyn’s frustration with him and rejoice when Llewyn finally strikes back. As the marine cum singer Troy Nelson (a real-life character), Stark Sands plays the naive, large-hearted marine with convincing innocence. And the Gorfeins (Ethan Philips and Robin Bartlett) play their upper-middle-class professors’ part with the right amount of snobbery; they are good people but driven by what the books say they must be (generous to struggling artists).  

Max Casella as the Gaslight owner Pappi is that vile proprietor who has some redeeming qualities like forgiving Llewyn after he messes up. Even Nancy Blake (a bonafide musician) as folk musician whom Davis heckles is unforgettable in her shock. And, of course, the cats (four to five of them were used) give the much-needed levity and tenderness to the scenes.  Ethan Coen says they had to bring in the cat when they realized the film didn’t have much of a story. But they vowed never to work with cats (a dog wants to please you, but a cat wants to please itself) because directing them was a nightmare. 

The true test of a masterpiece is how well it holds up with time and multiple viewings. Inside Llewyn Davis is like folk music: it is never new and never gets old (a quote from the film). Oscar Isaac says the film is the Coens’ acknowledgment that they are lucky; with their folksy and uncompromising stance as directors who have stayed away from the big studios, they could have ended up on the other side of the fence like their protagonist. 

Why watch it? A boneheaded man’s struggle can be beautiful to watch if we know he believes in it.¬†

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