Cannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013
“If it was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song,” explains Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) after yet another gig strumming his guitar at Greenwich Village’s Gaslamp in”Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film is full of folk tunes in its soundtrack as it recreates the pre-Dylan early 1960s scene in New York. Yet, in many ways, the Coen Brothers’ film itself is a folk song, if judged by the definition they provide.
Llewyn’s story is all too familiar – and one that hits close to home for anyone yet to achieve the lofty success they were promised with every participation medal. Most stories of musicians trying to enter into the business involve some measure of pain and frustration, but for Llewyn, the bad breaks seem almost cosmic. He’s always a smidgen too early or a moment too late to shake off the funk that seems to set a tone of frustration and misery for his life. “King Midas’ idiot brother,” his ex-flame Jean (Carey Mulligan) describes him, and by the end of the film, such a mythological explanation for Llewyn’s woes seems entirely possible.
It proves frustrating to watch him endure trial after tribulation, though not because the beats are tired. The doomed slacker routine may have been done before, but certainly not like Joel and Ethan Coen do it. Insomuch as the duo would ever make something so straightforward as a “personal” film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” addresses the price a person can pay for trying to maintain the purity of their art. Llewyn decries the easy, the accessible and the crowd-pleasing, lamenting anyone who panders to these attributes as sell-outs or careerists.
Llewyn is a performer operating at a “higher function,” as he puts it. Watching him struggle, unable even to win for losing, is made bearable (and even enjoyable) by the colorful cast of characters surrounding him. There’s the venomous spurned lover Jean, the hammy rival singer Jim (Justin Timberlake), good-natured performer Al Cody (Adam Driver) as well as a loquacious road trip partner Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his stoic driver Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).
The whole incredible journey, however, does more than show these unfortunate events occurring to Llewyn. The Coen Brothers, to some extent, interrogate why these things keep happening to him. Is it a Nietzschean example of eternal recurrence that dooms him to keep stumbling in the same way? Or is it somehow a flaw in Llewyn himself? At one point, Jean angrily huffs, “You don’t want to go anywhere, and that’s why the same sh*t’s going to keep happening to you, because you want it to.” Perhaps she has a point.
Yet even in spite of all the odds stacked against him, Llewyn still elicits empathy. Not because he is the protagonist, and especially not because he always deserves it. Oscar Isaac acts soulfully, creating a character hoping against hope that the next fork in the road will finally set him on the right path. That shred of optimism continually met by the brutally unfeeling business and world ought to hit close to home for everyone. This propensity for fatalism, neither old nor new, reverberates throughout “Inside Llewyn Davis” and hits a resonant emotional high rarely allowed in a Coen Brothers film. A- /