There aren’t many directors that can boast a track record as impressive as the one that Joel and Ethan Coen have enjoyed throughout their 30-year careers, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just another notch on that cinematic belt. Markedly different from a lot of their films in that it’s a much more intimate, character-driven piece, “Inside Llewyn Davis” most closely resembles “A Serious Man” in both tone and execution. But although the movie is a fairly bittersweet portrait of personal failure (a running theme in the Coens’ repertoire), it’s not without their trademark wit and humor. The comedy may not be as pronounced as in the duo’s other films, but it’s yet another fine period drama that showcases a different side of the directors.
Set during the early 1960s in the middle of the New York folk scene, the movie stars Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis, a struggling musician trying to make it as a solo artist after his former singing partner commits suicide. The music business is already difficult enough to break into, but even more so for the hard-to-market folk genre, despite Llewyn’s obvious talent. With no steady income or plans for the future, Llewyn spends his days wandering the city in search of his next gig and his nights crashing on friends’ couches, including musician couple Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), the former of whom Llewyn may or may not have gotten pregnant. Desperate to get out of town for a few days, Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago to audition for legendary manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham).
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a difficult film to summarize, because not a whole lot happens over the course of its one-week time period. In fact, Joel Coen has even gone on record saying that it doesn’t really have a plot, instead content with following Llewyn around as he interacts with a rotating cast of characters played by Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund and Adam Driver, to name a few. As a result of this loose, almost vignette-like structure, the entire movie rests on Oscar Isaac’s shoulders, with the actor delivering a superb performance that manages to make the titular freeloader somewhat likeable. Llewyn certainly doesn’t do himself any favors with his abrasive personality, but he’s also had his share of bad luck over the years, and Isaac wears that defeat and disappointment on his face for everyone to see. The rest of the cast isn’t given enough to do to leave much of an impression, but Mulligan does get a few great scenes with Isaac early in the film, reteaming for the first time since playing husband and wife in “Drive.”
For as good as Isaac is in the role, however, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective without T-Bone Burnett’s excellent soundtrack, especially when such a large chunk of the movie is dedicated to the musical performances. Featuring covers of classic folk songs like “Fare Thee Well,” “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and “Five Hundred Miles,” it’s one of the best soundtracks since “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (also arranged by Burnett) and will likely earn its share of fans thanks to the current folk revival by bands such as Mumford and Sons, whose frontman appears on one of the tracks as Llewyn’s former partner. It’s not often that a soundtrack plays such a pivotal role in my enjoyment of a film, but it’s certainly fitting considering just how much the Coens rely on music to provide the backdrop of their story. At times, “Inside Llewyn Davis” even feels like a proper biopic minus all the baggage (the title character was reportedly inspired by American folk singer Dave Van Ronk), and though it becomes a little too relaxed in the second half with its storytelling, the Coens know exactly which strings to pull to keep you engaged.