Joel and Ethan Cohen’s Inside Llewyn Davis tells the story of a folk singer entering the strange early years of the New York folk music scene. Their script was developed from a single moment of a single night of Dave VonRonk‘s autobiography: the night he was beaten up outside Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. The film explores the moments leading up to that night, and the various trials of one artist making it in the early folk music scene where the identity of an entire music genre was still being worked out. In the midst of all of this, as all artists do, Davis struggles with his personal needs and the needs of others through his relationships, his financial situation, and his need to make something of substance independent and also completely dependent on the internal and external forces dictating his strange path to his career.
There is not a Coen Brothers film that I cannot watch many times over and still find to be a spectacular enjoyment to watch. Sure, there are some that are better than others, but their approach to storytelling, their adept scripts, the performances they evoke from their actors, and the final overall execution are consistently stellar.
I absolutely loved this film, and I was blown away by the performances of Oscar Isaac, John Goodman, and Carey Mulligan. I think that the live recording they did, unlike my opinion of the terrible decision to use the same techniques in other films such as Les Miserables, was perfect for the intimacy and format of this quiet, emotional film about a frustrated folk musician. The result is a Quioxtian tale on a scale that seems to shift between the tiny to the huge throughout the film. I didn’t have any expectations going into it besides that sense of awe and celluloid perfection I get from other Cohen films, and I was blown away at the touching result of their perfect execution of a beautiful script. The soundtrack is amazing, and my only meh-ness came from the strange decision to include Justin Timberlake at all.
As in all Cohen Brothers’ films, I found myself researching and analyzing the piece long after watching it. I really wanted to see it when I read Richard Brody’s incredible piece in the New Yorker, as well as an equally beautiful follow-up, but I never made it to the theater in time to catch it. The most beautiful and perplexing point of the film was a solitary silent one at about the one hour and fifteen-minute mark of the film. Llewyn stares into the void as his compatriots sleep in the car, snow falling silently, and he wonders whether something happened to poor Ulysses the cat as a result of his own carelessness – which doesn’t even make sense in the context of where they are. This cat ends up being a strange extension of Davis himself (and a completely blatant direct reference to Oh, Brother and Homer) as an endlessly debatable and beautifully rendered metaphor.
I really enjoyed this movie. I will occasionally revisit it as I come to terms with my own struggles with the strangeness of making art and surviving as an artist on the planet earth. Through the Cohen Brothers’ lens, along with the artistic, technical, and musical input of T Bone Burnett, the story of Llewyn Davis is a subtle and beautiful musical for the twenty-first century.