Leave it to me to get told off by a friend for including spoilers in the following review (they’re not major). If you haven’t seen this movie, I suggest you stop reading now.
At the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film by the Coen brothers, a young Bob Dylan takes the stage of the underground Gaslight Café. At about the same time, down and out folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is receiving a beat down in the café’s back alley for having insulted a lady singer the night before. Dylan’s song leads us into the end credits. But why Dylan?
The ending addresses a qualm I had with Llewyn Davis’ singing throughout this movie. As I understand it, Isaac did all of his own singing, and except for one song, performed every track live on set. He is almost flawless. Deeply moving, with a voice that could be heard on 96.1FM at one o’clock in the morning. I compare his grace and power to Matt Corby. He’s not as gruff, but he makes up for it with silky smooth charm. And I think that’s why he never finds success as a folk singer in 1961.
He sounds too modern. Too ahead of his time. During a couple of his songs, I closed my eyes and listened to his voice. He is so good. But I think he is not right for 1960s folk. He doesn’t belong in the Gaslight Café or in The Gate Of Horn. He belongs on stage at Southbound, the annual indie music festival held a hundred kilometres south of Perth. There’s the sense that Llewyn Davis is the right man living in the wrong time.
And so we have Bob Dylan. Nasal voice. Harmonica propped in front of his lips. Curly hair and no recognition to his name. He opens his mouth not to sing, but to convey an idea. To express an emotion. The quality of one’s voice is not a prerequisite to the success of folk music. You must, first and foremost, have solid writing. Dylan ends the movie as a reminder of this. Now, if only he had met our friend Llewyn some time earlier.
As the movie opens, Llewyn is singing at Gaslight. His face halved by shadow. The audience applauds, but as we find out later, applause means nothing to him. He is a painful character, grown bitter at having lost his singing partner to suicide. Alone, he tries to get back on his feet, but most nights he spends crashing on someone else’s couch, or floor. His backup plan is to join the navy and sail around the world. Backup plans are backups for a reason.
Inside Llewyn Davis is an examination of perseverance. There is nothing more to it. Yes, this is a Coens script, but it isn’t a Coens story in the vein of Blood Simple, Fargo, Burn After Reading, or No Country For Old Men. There is no MacGuffin that sets a whole chain of events into motion. There is only Llewyn, his guitar, an orange cat, and the next step into a bar or pub. We follow him in every scene. We pay attention to his words and his expressions. We understand his feelings. When he erupts at a friend’s dinner party one night, it’s rude, yes, but can we blame him for feeling so bitter?
There’s also a subplot involving a churlish ex lover, her new boyfriend (Justin Timberlake), and the possibility of her carrying Llewyn’s baby. The ex is played by Carey Mulligan, who seems to be situated perfectly in place as the wavering flame that unites her character with Isaac’s in Drive. Could they be past versions of those characters? I don’t see why not. In Inside Llewyn Davis though, I didn’t quite buy her rude behaviour and perpetual petulance. After a couple of scenes where she hurls insult after insult at Llewyn, you kinda get the feeling that enough’s enough. Put a smile on your face lady and move on.
There are also roles offered to John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, and F. Murray Abraham. Two out of the three don’t occupy any real space within the plot. They pop in, get into some drug-induced trouble, and leave. The third, however, casts a deep shadow over Llewyn’s ambitions, and he too seems to be channeling a spirit from a role of long ago. The point of this movie is not to be concerned with who Llewyn meets, but with what happens to him after he meets them.
Oscar Isaac gives us great stuff. But maybe his singing style is mismatched. The more I think about it, the more ominous Dylan’s appearance at the end becomes. It’s not easy to step into a Coen role and dominate the screen with a performance so convincing though. The Coens can be harsh on their leads that way. What’s disappointing about Inside Llewyn Davis is that the Coens don’t strive to break new ground. The story exists. So do the characters. We are engaged, and we care. But the craziness we’ve come to expect from the brothers is nowhere to be seen. If you go into this movie familiar with their filmography, you might come out feeling just a little short-changed.
Best Moment | The whole movie is really good, but I simply relished seeing Dylan pop up at the end.
Worst Moment | Carey Mulligan’s performance in most of her scenes.