Winning the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – along with a handful of other awards – “Inside Llewyn Davis” is an achingly beautiful look at one week in the life of an aspiring yet struggling folk singer by the name of, you guessed it, Llewyn Davis. Mixing equal parts spectacular performances, soulful music, and that good-old Coen brothers charm, “Inside Llewyn Davis” shines a light on the 1960s New York City folk music scene and tells it like it is through the eyes and voice of one musician just trying to be heard.
New York City – 1961
Oscar Isaac plays the eponymous, down-on-his-luck singer and the film follows him as he moves from gig to gig, finding lukewarm reception among café and bar audiences and an even colder reception from Jean (Carey Mulligan), his friend’s girlfriend whom he (accidentally) impregnated. He sleeps on the couches and floors of his friends and acquaintances, reluctantly taking any charity he can and promising to make good on it. It’s a hard knock life for Mr. Davis, but it is one that many struggling and/or starving artists can relate to.
Worthy of More than a Nomination
Say what you will, but Oscar Isaac just may be the biggest acting snub of this year’s Academy Awards; his performance in the film is so authentic it feels like the Coens time-traveled to 1961, found a look-alike of Isaac, and said, “don’t mind the camera, just do what you do” – a bit hyperbolic of a theory, but you get the idea. Isaac plays the part of Llewyn Davis beautifully and sympathetically – you almost want to reach out and pat him on the back and reassure him things will be alright and that he can crash at your place for the night.
He plays the role of someone whose life just keeps knocking him down but refuses to stay down. Llewyn embodies our innermost drive to succeed and overcome any and all obstacles put in our path. Even in the scenes where he has to accept charity from others, you can see the pain in his eyes and face and even when confronted by people who just want to push him down (Coen brothers’ veteran John Goodman’s character makes a light-hearted yet sardonic cameo for this role), he is humble enough to keep on keepin’ on. Mulligan also brings forth an amazing performance and the scenes shared between her and Isaac were some of the film’s best – Isaac’s coolness contrasting with Mulligan’s fire. And though he may be a little boorish at times in his interactions with people, Llewyn channels his frustrations into a single, meaningful passion – music.
We’re Doing it Live!
If the performances are the film’s brick, the music is its mortar. The songs, which were all performed live by the actors, are heartfelt and moving, much like real folk music. T-Bone Burnett did an unparalleled job with producing the film’s soundtrack and though every song in the film and their respective performances by the cast deserve praise, “Hang Me, oh Hang Me” and “Fare Thee Well” are notable standouts, in my opinion; they possess a hauntingly stunning quality and feel more from the heart and soul of their performer (Isaac, on both accounts) than just from the lips and mouth.
But beyond the music and characters, this film is also a literal and figurative journey. Llewyn plays the part of a weary traveler, worn down by the hardships of the world and trying to find peace and solace and a place to rest but life denies him this, forcing him to continue his trek, not knowing when and where it may end. At an early point in the film, Llewyn is forced to carry a cat around with him as it has escaped from its home and this cat is Llewyn’s only constant companion throughout the film, a fitting one as it is speechless (naturally) and mostly docile, a stark contrast to Llewyn’s mouthy and mobile self. Its presence and importance to the film just goes to show that even the smallest encounters can have large impacts on us.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is an emotionally beautiful journey for not only its lead character but for the audience themselves. The Coens, through marvelous direction and excellent writing, have struck another one out of the park and this film deserves every accolade it has received (and likely will receive). If you’re an aspiring singer, songwriter, musician or otherwise artist, this film will really strike a chord or two with you as it shows that no matter how much passion you pour into your artistic craft, life will always ask more of you and it is up to you to play it right.