A Brave and Somber Exploration of a Musician’s Troubled Life
“A life lived for art is a life never wasted.” – Macklemore.
He should know. Art has always been born from blinding struggle and life experience. Every good novel stemmed from a bitter breakup. Every quality comedian dealt with pain through humor. Music is no different. A melodic transcription of the performer’s personal strife, passion, pain and joy. The life of a small time artist can be at times exhilarating and crushing. For good work to blossom, sometimes it has to be.
Enter Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men, Fargo) to put low level troubadours at the center of their latest project, Inside Llewyn Davis. A challenging and heartbreaking black dramadey, Davis doesn’t rank at the top of the duo’s canon but remains a stern reminder of their impressive filmmaking chops.
Oscar Issac plays the title character, a rambling folk artist making this way through the sixties Bleeker & MacDougal folk scene. He crashes on couches, plays the occasional gig at Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Café and struggles to keep his crumbling personal life from hitting bottom. In the role of Llewyn, Issac’s biggest strength is his musical skills. By writing and performing the bulk of the extensive soundtrack, Issac adds authenticity to an emotionally stoic role. When not singing, Issac’s uncertain and borderline bumbling Llewyn reminded me of Larry from 2009’s A Serious Man in a good way. He’s far from a perfect person and his flaws make him relatable even when he’s being a jerk. He’s a talented everyman whose zeal for making it in the biz clouds his judgment on everyday affairs. Easily one of the most interesting characters written this year.
Surrounding the melancholy guitarist are friends Jean (Carey Mulligan), Jim (Justin Timberlake) and the wonderfully cantankerous Roland Turner, played by a Walter Sobchak channeling John Goodman. Goodman’s random inclusion during a long drive to Chicago is a shot of comic energy exactly when the audience is starting to fidget. Mulligan is the only chink in the supporting cast armor as she again makes no attempt to connect with the other actors. I know I’m a broken record, but she has two speeds: overdone anger or dull indifference. And if I had to give an honorary Best Supporting Actor award, it would be to the cat Llewyn carts around. A near “purrrfect” performance. (groan).
Fortunately, the Coen’s are at the helm and they’re nowhere near as hacky as my puns. Proving once again they are elite filmmakers, the duo expertly blends their benchmark humor with gut wrenching drama. While the tone is one noted and there’s a serious lack of character arc, the depiction of the 1960’s folk scene is spot on. The world created by the Coen’s is a captivating vortex of rejections, bar gigs and personal pressure in which Llewyn fails to deal with. The result is the singer’s slow and painful personal decent, a spiritual drain anybody who’s ever climbed a career hill can identify with.
When the credits rolled, my initial reaction was one of cautious appreciation. Nothing comes easy for audiences. There’s no hero arc. No shoved in love story, no cliché moment of redemption, no cinematic attempt to maintain interest. It’s a film only the Coen’s would be brave enough to make with studio money and as the trials and tribulations of Llewyn stewed in my mind, my reservations evaporated. Inside Llewyn Davis is a brutally wonderful view into the world of a struggling artist with all the humor, pathos and filmmaking mastery that’s made the Coen Brothers the kings of American cinema.
Score: 9 out of 10