Throughout their career which spans nearly three decades in the film business, Joel & Ethan Coen (famously known as the Coen brothers) have given us some of America’s boldest films with their unique cinematic vision & distinct filmmaking style to build a reputation as one of world cinema’s most idiosyncratic visionaries working in the industry today. Most of the films they’ve made enjoys a celebrated cult following at present & their fan base is as diverse as their films itself. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Inside Llewyn Davis finds the Coen brothers in sublime form & puts on screen an aimless journey of a messed up individual navigating through the New York’s folk music scene of the early 1960s.
Truth be told, I’m not really a huge fan of the Coen brothers’ works. Though I do admire many aspects of their feature films & the precision level of craftsmanship that goes into each one of them, the cinematic experience of those films as a whole has always felt incomplete to a certain extent. It happened with Fargo, it happened with The Big Lebowski & it also happened slightly with what I consider Coens’ greatest work so far i.e. No Country For Old Men. So there is no denying that I went to this film with little to no expectations & maybe that’s why it worked out for me in the end. Although the experience wasn’t by any means an exception, it nonetheless felt damn close to completion this time, so close that even in what has been a phenomenal year for movies, Inside Llewyn Davis will rank amongst my top films of the year.
Set in New York City’s Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s & partly inspired by Dave Van Ronk’s autobiography, Inside Llewyn Davis concerns a folk singer who is struggling to make his mark in the music industry as a solo artist, after the suicide of his singing parter. The film covers just one week in the life of Llewyn Davis where we see him performing at the Gaslight Cafe, getting beaten up by a stranger, sleeping at acquaintances’ apartments, still recovering from the loss of his partner, discovering that his recent solo album isn’t selling, hitchhiking through America in its chilly winter, having trouble in finding paying gigs and trying to deal with the increasing pile of obstacles he faces on a daily basis, most of which are of his own making. In short, this story is simply an observation of a reckless individual who refuses to get his life together.
Written, directed & edited by Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis makes its voice heard loud & clear and plays a music of its own that resonates throughout the whole film. In spite of having no definite plot, the Coen brothers somehow manage to make the film work through their remarkable use of dry humour & unconventional narration, this time introduced in the form of a symbolic cat. Production design does a fine job in creating the early 1960s atmosphere which seems authentic to a certain degree. Cinematography makes the biggest mark here, thanks to perfect lighting & smooth operation of the camera, its fluid movements & controlled zooms, thus capturing everything in stunning detail while also radiating a warm shade against the freezing New York winter background. And as far as the soundtrack goes, it is an absolute good & features some wonderful folk additions performed by the cast themselves, my favourite being the novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy”.
When it comes to casting, the Coens do know who can perfectly embody their scripted characters & so far have only impressed with their casting decisions. Leading from the front here we have Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis; a homeless folk singer with some talent but no discipline whose tragic but funny endeavours in his day-to-day life is what this film is about. Now, Llewyn may not have made the breakthrough he was aiming for but Oscar Isaac certainly has & it’s his brilliant performance only which makes it possible for us to sympathize with his quite unlikable character. The second notable performance actually comes from an orange tabby cat who is a symbolic figure in the film. Rest of the performances are pretty good but is present in small doses only, starting with Justin Timberlake & Carey Mulligan as Jim & Jean respectively; Llewyn’s friends & aspiring musicians. John Goodman & Garrett Hedlund enter the film near the halfway mark as two musicians heading to Chicago. Goodman is in as Roland Turner; a Jazz musician who bullies Llewyn throughout their road trip, while Hedlund is Johnny Five; a mumbling beat poet.
Just like every Coens’ venture, Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t a motion picture that every viewer is going to enjoy. There are going to be many who’ll find it smart & funny but for the rest, it might become a chore to sit through. Although the film is only 105 minutes long, it still had few moments that could & should have ended up on the editing floor. The first half is near perfect, in my opinion. It’s during the second part of the story where little padding & boredom starts setting in, beginning with the Chicago road trip sequence that ended up running longer than it should have. Apart from depicting Llewyn’s miseries, the Coens have only added fillers to keep the story moving forward & manage to reach the other end, thanks to the added storyline of the cat which can keep some viewers busy in relating the two & solving the puzzle.
If you’re into folk music, then you might find something to like about this film. If you’re a fan of the Coen brothers, then you will find something to like about this film. It’s a part funny, part gloomy tale of an ordinary person facing extraordinary situations who, even after getting rid of his troubles, refuses to learn anything from it & ends up making the same mistakes again. On an overall scale, Inside Llewyn Davis is a tragically funny cinema that explores the bleak disappointments that so many people around the world face at some point of their careers, although here it mainly refers to artists in the show business. In the end, the Coen brothers want to expose a simple but deeply unsettling truth that most people find hard to swallow; It’s that even the most talented individuals don’t always end up being the successful ones. Multiple viewings advised.