Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan
Where La La Land captures the passionate vigor in which people should follow their dreams with, Inside Llewyn Davis captures the cold reality of actually doing it. This is the gloomiest of all the Coen brothers’ films that I’ve seen thus far, with a mostly gray color palette and very few sparks of hope. But its not a joyless experience; there’s sprinkles and nuances of humor that feels very much organic to the film’s tone and setting, and all the film’s characters show the potential for it (there’s no cheesy “comic relief” character). It’s the kind of humor that we’ve grown accustomed to from the Coens, but it is here that it feels the most fresh.
Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn in his best performance to date, residing in New York where he may as well be a drifter, going from couch to couch from various friends and acquaintances, trying to make his mark in the world of folk music. He is a tall dark figure with a partial beard and the aura of authenticity and a bit of pretentiousness. He bears a disinterested and monotonous expression for the film’s majority. He’s a man who refuses to compromise his style of playing, especially after the suicide of his partner. But his record’s not selling. He takes every opportunity he finds, but little seems to pan out. His most successful venture is the only instance where he sells out.
On top of all this, he’s stuck with a friend’s cat that he doesn’t want and he got his friend’s girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) pregnant. Despite all this, Llewyn’s a man we admire for his multiple attempts to achieve his goals and his refusal to be anyone else for the sake of a sale. In this, he symbolizes the dreamer in all of us, similar to the way Andrew Neiman was in Whiplash. Any young person with a passion can identify with characters like these, especially those interested in the arts.
The setting is a seemingly desolate and slushy New York in 1961. The Coens employ a cloudy winter to represent the seemingly joyless nature of Llewyn’s experiences. There are multiple fade-outs to transition certain scenes, adding to the bleak quietude. Scenes often begin and end at abrupt times, resembling the many inconveniences we encounter in our own endurances. There’s little overt showiness in the Coen’s shot composition and direction, the camera only moving when absolutely necessary, giving it a certain simplicity. The music in the film is entirely organic, and the music played appears to be genuine. The soundtrack is one of my all-time favorites.
In this journey, we see Llewyn Davis embody the spirit of folk legend Dave Van Ronk as he ploughs through various obstacles to become a successful musician. He encounters burnouts, poets and jazz musicians along the way, and considers various ways out, such as joining the Navy and even the compromise he’s so actively against. There’s a great deal of suffering to this lifestyle, but you do wonder if there’s something masochistic to this suffering. Is it possible that he’s a purist to the extent that he craves the rejection and backlashes he receives? Or that he’s an elitist to the point where he likes this bohemian way of living? Jean says “You don’t want to go anywhere, and that’s why the same shit’s going to keep happening to you, because you want it to.” I won’t spoil anything, but alongside its messages of the enduring pain to find success, it’s also a film about the endless cycle of unhealthy behaviors.