The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Jury Grand Prize), New York

Inducted Into the Criterion Collection: 2016

Any aspiring artist can tell you the long, sad, often-frustrating story of their attempts to break through in their chosen medium. The pursuit of making art as one’s primary means of income, while incredibly exhilarating and fulfilling in its victories (both small and large), comes with living in a constant state of self-doubt, second-guessing, what-ifs, and seething envy for colleagues more successful than you. Being an artist means pouring your blood, sweat, and tears into your work, oftentimes for no one else’s benefit but your own, and rarely with any kind of financial reward for your trouble. Being a part of an artistic community, while oftentimes a source of great encouragement and strength, can also be a source of great heartbreak when you’re surrounded by constant reminders that there will always be someone more talented, more connected, or more popular than you. It takes a very specific kind of courage and character to persevere in such an environment, which the directing team of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen capture so beautifully in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013), their intimate portrait of Greenwich Village’s burgeoning folk scene circa the early 1960’s.

Like its sister piece O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000) before it, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS springs forth from the rich heritage of American folk music. The Coens have often turned to our distinct musical flavor in finding inspiration throughout their body of work, and with INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS they turn their attention to the folk scene in Greenwich Village at a specific point in history—the moment just before Bob Dylan came around and fundamentally transformed it. The Coens used folk musician Dave Van Ronk’s life as a jumping-off point, fictionalizing his plight in such a way that it would become our window into this insular, long-forgotten world. To accomplish their vision, the Coens teamed up with Scott Rudin, the super-producer behind their previous film (2010’s TRUE GRIT). At this time, Rudin had been dabbling in independent experimental works from well-known auteurs, like Noah Baumbach and his 2012 feature FRANCES HA, so another round with the Coens seemed only natural. Despite the runaway success of their previous pairing, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS floundered around somewhat in securing distribution, and while it received great reviews from the critics, it never found solid footing and support aside from the most hardcore of Coen fanatics (of which, admittedly, there are legion).

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS tells the story of its eponymous protagonist (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk singer trying to make a dent in Greenwich Village’s crowded music scene in 1961. He is essentially homeless, bouncing around from couch to couch and becoming increasingly reliant on the generosity of like-minded artist within the scene as well as his adoring (and only) fans, a well-to-do older couple. Oftentimes, his inability to get his life in order results in animosity from his closest friends, which the thick-skinned Llewyn seems to be mostly oblivious to. The film as a whole doesn’t boast much in the way of a traditional plot, opting instead to follow Llewyn during a somewhat eventful week that begins with his contentious friend and fellow folk singer Jean (Carey Mulligan) secretly announcing that she might be pregnant with his child—- a rather shitty development for her considering it might also be her boyfriend Jim’s (Justin Timberlake) baby and she actually would want to keep that one. While Llewyn scrounges for whatever change he can in order to take care of the situation, he meets with his manager who, in as many words, reminds Llewyn of his depreciated musical value following the suicide of his partner, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge a few years prior.

A little bit later, Llewlyn records a song with Jim and fellow folk singer Al Cody (Adam Driver)—a song of Jim’s own making that Llewyn personally finds distasteful and embarrassing. Assuming this naked attempt to sell out won’t actually result in success, Llewyn accepts the one-time session recording payment without having the foresight to secure any future royalties—an ill-advised decision that hammers home when Llewyn discovers that, ironically, the song is actually going to be quite popular. And finally, in a last-ditch attempt to secure new management, Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago. He hopes to audition for a famous manager out there, only to again hit a wall that he can’t quite break through.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS manages to capture a certain time and place in the calm before the storm… before a groundbreaking voice (Bob Dylan) came along like a megathrust earthquake and fundamentally changed the scene. To hammer this point home, we even see a cameo of a young Dylan sitting down to perform at the famous Gaslight venue, home to the Village’s folk community. With the film, the Coens paint a portrait of a starving artist that’s utterly heartbreaking in how true it rings for any creative person caught in that hard, agonizing place between obscurity and success. However, the Coens use INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS to argue a heartfelt point—that the best art comes from a place of deprivation and the human condition of wanting and needing something; a fact that Llewyn has to understand and absorb if he’s ever going to take off. His art must be a product of passion and survival.

In his first true headlining performance, Oscar Isaac proves himself every bit a leading man. As the failing singer Llewyn, Isaac assumes a stymied, disorganized and neurotic persona. He’s fed up with the folk scene that seemingly exists only to mock him, along with his inability to rise to the level of success that his friends and colleagues seem to be experiencing. Isaac’s performance here is undeniably his best so far, fashioning a character that is inherently relatable even if he’s not exactly likeable. Carey Mulligan, in her second collaboration with Isaac after Nicolas Wending Refn’s DRIVE (2011), dyes her hair jet black so she can disappear into the angry and confrontational character of Jean. She absolutely nails the Coens’ biting sense of humor, made all the more hilarious considering her sweet, youthful countenance. Justin Timberlake continues his run of surprisingly well-acted appearances for prestige directors in the character of Jim. He’s handsome, successful and charismatic—basically, he’s a folk version of himself in real life.

The Coens’ supporting cast is equally eclectic, with GIRLS’ stars Adam Driver playing Al Cody— a goofy performer dressed up in cowboy attire— and Alex Karpovsky playing Marty Green, a bookish and put-together departure from his usual “frazzled/neurotic” guy roles. Longtime Coen collaborator John Goodman makes his requisite appearance as Roland Turner—a lethargic, Kentucky-fried bastard and successful jazz musician— again proving himself a master of characterization, despite his limited screen time. Garrett Hedlund, a much-maligned young actor for reasons I can’t quite comprehend, plays Johnny Five—Roland’s valet and chauffeur. Hedlund pulls off a quiet, intense performance as a James Dean greaser type, possessing an effortless cool that stands in stark contrast to Llewyn’s anxious aggression.

The Coens’ regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, was unavailable to shoot INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS due to his commitments on Sam Mendes’ SKYFALL (2012), so instead, they turned to French cinematographer Bruce Delbonnel, who had previously worked with the Coens on “TUILIERIES”, their short contribution to the 2006 omnibus film, PARIS J’TAIME. Delbonnel’s cinematography on INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS was nominated for an Academy Award—the film’s sole nomination, which is interesting given that the Academy usually falls all over itself to throw the Coens as many nominations as they can. Delbonnel and the Coens shot INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS on a 35mm film stock with very low grain; so low, in fact, that one could be mistaken for thinking the film was shot digitally. As has been a mark of their work since O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, the Coens give INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS a unique look via substantial color grading that desaturates primary hues while emphasizing a creamy, teal/grey palette. The look reflects the cold, depressing winter that envelopes the film, but there’s also a hint of romance to it, signified by a hazy, dreamlike soft focus. The Coens use the camera mostly in an observational, minimalist sense, keeping it static and unmoving (save for the occasional dolly glide). The Coens’ regular production designer, Jess Gonchor, returns with a low-key, lived-in aesthetic that’s accurate to the period in its closer resemblance to the late 1950’s instead of the pyschedelic, go-go 60’s look that the period usually engenders.

In eschewing a traditional score, and by extension, another collaboration with their regular composer Carter Burwell, the Coens must subsequently rely more on their frequent music supervisor, T-Bone Burnett. Burnett’s legendary ear has been responsible for the compilation of several amazing musical soundscapes that give their respective movies and TV shows a distinct aural identity. His collaboration with the Coens reaches back to O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, and in many ways, the soundtrack to INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS becomes a spiritual successor to that film. While the film boasts several live performances, a lot of the music was pre-recorded by the cast prior to shooting, who were joined by modern, prominent folk artists like Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons (his main contribution being the film’s theme track, “Fare Thee Well”). Burnett and the Coens close out the film with Bob Dylan’s “Farewell”, which serves not only as a comment on Dylan’s profound effect on the folk scene following his debut, but also as wry commentary on how similar it is to Llewyn’s own “Fare Thee Well”. Make no mistake, this isn’t an oversight on the Coens’ part; it is a deliberate move that highlights the almost-nonexistent dividing line between successful and failed artists. The line itself is not talent, as one would naturally think—it’s luck.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS possesses a sensibility that places it directly in line with the Coens’ prolific body of work. The story is laced with pitch-black humor and acerbic characterization, treating the Gentile/Anglo culture of folk music with a distinctly Jewish mentality. The placing of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS’ story in a concrete time period apart from contemporary trappings is a trait shared by the majority of the Coens’ previous work, giving their filmography a truly timeless appeal. Signified by the bitter, oppressive winter that surrounds the film’s characters, the specter of death looms large in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS—but not in the sense that the Coens have traditionally applied it in films like FARGO(1996) or NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), seeing as this is the first Coen Brothers film where nobody dies. Rather, death is equated with obscurity by INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS’ characters. They work tirelessly to succeed as artists, because failure means obscurity—and to them, obscurity is a fate far worse than death.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS was well-received by critics (as was expected), but wasn’t given enough of a marketing push to enable a healthy box office run. After a long time in post-production with a constantly shifting and unpublicized release date, it was quietly released in time for the 2013/2014 awards season, netting only the aforementioned cinematography nomination at the Oscars. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS will most likely be remembered as a minor film in the Coens’ canon—but even the most minor Coen work still stands as a sterling example of cinema at its finest. The film is a strong, passionately realized work that competes with the best of 2013’s releases while continuing the Coens’ long tradition of excellence in both craft and storytelling.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Sony.

Credits:
Produced by: Scott Rudin, Joel and Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Director of Photography: Bruce Delbonnel
Production Designer: Jess Gonchor
Edited by: Joel and Ethan Coen (as Roderick Jaynes)
Music supervisor: T-Bone Burnett