Coen brothers film features great music.
Inside Llewyn Davis is yet another skillfully crafted film by the Coen brothers. But it’s also almost devoid of plot, depressing, and occasionally plodding. The film shows a week in the life of the titular Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac), a fictional folk singer, based loosely (very, very loosely) on folk singer Dave Van Ronk in New York City in 1962. Davis struggles; he is homeless, couch-surfing with one friend after another. He has no money and no real prospects for making any. His music—which is awesome, by the way—is getting him nowhere. The film opens with a frustrated and depressed Davis coping with the death of his former bandmate (voiced in recordings by Marcus Mumford), and the film ends with a frustrated and depressed Davis. And that is the root of my problem with the film: it’s about an unhappy man who struggles to maintain his unhappy life. There is no arc to his depression; he just remains malcontent throughout.
That’s not to say there’s not a lot to like about the film.
The performances by Isaac, as well as that of his costars, are very good. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan perform ably as Davis’s only friends, the musician-couple Jim and Jean. It’s not often that you get actors as talented as Isaac and Mulligan who can also sing as well as they can. John Goodman provides some of the only levity to the film as Roland Turner, a condescending and insulting jazz musician. Despite Turner’s constant jabs at Davis over the course of their too-short meeting, everything in the movie is just sad. Everything seems to have a melancholic veneer, even extending into the cinematography. Everything is shot seemingly through smoke, fog, or snow and this gives every shot a muted and washed out look. Although it looks really interesting, it still adds to this depressing alternative version of 1960s New York.
If this was all the film had to offer, I don’t think I could really recommend it. The aimless nature of the plot and the fact that everyone in the film is an asshole in one way or another are very off-putting. Thankfully, there is another layer to Inside Llewyn Davis: the music. The actors perform all of it live, on set, and all of it is great. With the exception of the song sung by Justin Timberlake that is just exceptional, every song comes from real folk acts from 1960s or earlier. The music was so good, after the film I went home and downlo…—I mean, purchased—the soundtrack of the movie, as well as everything I could find by Dave Van Ronk, and have had them on repeat pretty much constantly since then.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a sad film. It starts sad and it stays sad. But it’s well acted, well written, well shot, and the music is fantastic. Just don’t go see it if your looking for a pick-me-up.