Oscar Isaac, who plays the title role in the Coen brother’s latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, draws comparison between Llewyn, a struggling folksinger, and Buster Keaton, who built his brand of slapstick comedy on his unflinching stoicism, played with a deadpan face. Isaac says of Davis, “he keeps pushing through, which makes us laugh.”
Llewyn tries to survive winter in New York and further his career as a musician, unknowingly on the cusp of the great folk revival of the ‘60’s, headed of course by Bob Dylan. Davis faces his unending travails with a stone face, breaking the façade only with the revealing and redemptive beauty of his music.
“Hang me oh hang me, and I’ll be dead and gone,” coos Davis in the Gaslight Café, circa ’61, “I wouldn’t mind the hanging but the laying in the grave so long, poor boy,” hints of Davis’ ambivalence to success or failure, it’s his static existence wearing him down.
Arguing over a coffee with the volatile Jean (played by Carey Mulligan), Llewyn accuses Jean and her boyfriend Jim (played by Justin Timberlake) of being careerists, compromising artistically for a house in the suburbs. “There are two groups of people,” Llewyn tells Jean, “those who divide the world into two groups of people, and-” “losers,” she interjects.
While Jim seems set for success with a catchy novelty space-race tune, Please Mr. Kennedy (a reference to Larry Verne’s 1960 chart topper, Mr. Custer, which sold over a million copies), Davis is about to break. He makes a last-ditch effort for success and hitches a ride to Chicago with an insensitive jazz musician and drug fiend, Roland Turner (brilliantly played by John Goodman). But when it comes to the crux, Davis’ understated, melancholic tune doesn’t reek of bankability.
Perhaps this also why the film was disgracefully overlooked by the academy in this years Oscar nominations, providing an unwelcome antidote to the vulgarity of Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, having received fifteen nominations between them.
Much of the film is based on the life of Dave van Ronk, revered by greats like Joni Mitchell and Dylan himself as a supremely talented musician. Van Ronk never achieved great success despite the popularity of the folk revival. Dylan even ripped van Ronk’s arrangement of the folk song House of the Rising Sun without credit, an anecdote alluded to with a tightly executed crossover of Davis’ “Fare Thee Well” with Dylan’s.
Llewyn’s name channels van Ronk’s Irish heritage (despite his Dutch name), hinting at an authentic folk music tradition deliberately obscured by Dylan in his rebranding to honour his favourite poet, Dylan Thomas, from his Jewish surname of Zimmerman. Llewyn Davis and Dave van Ronk offer the “inside” (the Coen brother’s even using the title of van Ronk’s album), rather than indulging in Dylan’s sophisticated self-creation. Their refusal to compromise lands them up exactly where they started, the Coen brother’s cleverly bookending the film to frame the stasis.
The de-saturated colour and glowing hues of the cinematography create a stunning, bleak picture of 1960’s New York. Ethan Coen cited the famous cover of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as an inspiration for creating, [quote] “a grey, slushy New York in the winter.”
A heated argument between Jean and Llewyn is set against the cold, picturesque grandeur of the Washington Arch. The precision is trademark Coen brothers – Washington Square Park was where van Ronk learnt to fingerpick, and the site of the so-called “Beatnik Riot,” where 500 musicians and supporters gathered to protest the city’s crackdown on public performance in ’61.
The soundtrack encapsulates the varied musical influences on new-wave folk at the time, before Dylan became the definition. Isaac is a captivating performer, a stellar front to a brilliant cast, restrained and understated; you’re drawn to the enigma. Frustrating, but you can’t help but root for him.
Definitely worth seeing at the movies, you can still catch Inside Llewyn Davis at Hoyts Cinema Paris at Fox Studios and Dendy Newtown.