Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest effort from film making powerhouses Joel and Ethan Coen, starts and closes in song. The film's titular protagonist, Llewyn (Oscar Issac), sits alone, spotlight shining brightly, as he sings to a hushed crowd at the Gaslight Café, "I've been all around giradeau/Parts of Arkansas,” recounting a life that’s left him battered and bruised.
In the captivating 90 minutes between the mirrored moments, we come to find how far he's been. A struggling folk singer just clinging to the edges of the early ‘60s New York scene, Llewyn cashes in favors left and right to keep himself off the street. He constantly crashes on the couch of ex-lover Jean Berkley (Carey Mulligan), a fellow folk singer with an acid tongue and an angelic voice. Constantly trekking around Greenwich Village with guitar and cat in hand, Llewyn dedicates his life to music, seeing security and the suburbs as careerism, not end goals.
Llewyn throws himself from crisis to crisis, never settling down to breathe for a moment. He constantly loses his cat, which he assumes responsibility for after it escapes from one house he’s crashed at. When he gets the chance to trek to Chicago to meet a club owner, he instead ends in a bathroom, saving Roland Turner (played by the always charming John Goodmen) from heroin overdose.
The central conflict revolves around Llewyn’s refusal to give up his life of music, even as every sign tells him he should quit. His manager does nothing to support his career, and boxes of his unsold record remind him of his failure to break through. A pivotal scene comes as Llewyn visits his father, who’s life represents Llewyn’s future if he gave up on music. Ultimately rejecting his father’s life as too miserable, Llewyn nevertheless struggles to continue justifying his life as a failing artist when it becomes clear that other outcomes are possible.
One slight disappointment is the mixed tone that the film sends about Llewyn’s desperate situation. At points, it seems that he’s on the verge of absolute collapse, without a winter coat and only one pair of shoes that soaks through as he steps in a snow bank. Yet, he never seems to be desperate enough to beg for food, which feels realistic considering how the film portrays the rest of his life. Letting him struggle to that extent would have given the film further credibility to the struggling folk singer narrative that the movie strives for.
The film is propelled by the soundtrack, a compilation of tracks sung by various characters from the film. A mix of covers and original tracks, the songs feel organic as they come up in the film, transporting viewers back to that time. Issac ably sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” the first and final song of the film, with a fragile beauty that conveys the depths of his sorrow. “The Death Of Queen Jane” similarly finds Issac carefully making a traditional song his own, successfully embodying the early ‘60s folk tradition of covering old songs for a new audience.
Inside Llewyn Davis is made great by its acting. In particular, Issac captures the Bob Dylan-esque presence of his character to a tee. Ably carrying both his enduring love for music with a growing desperation as his situation grows direr, Issac makes it impossible to root against him, even as it becomes clearer that he’s made plenty of mistakes along the way.
Surely set to garner multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Inside Llewyn Davis shouldn’t be missed. With superb acting, a dynamic soundtrack and an incredibly realistic portrayal of the early ‘60s folk scene, it’s yet another highlight in a long line of blockbusters by the Coen Brothers. Debuting everywhere Dec. 6, it’s the perfect companion film to a fresh December snow.