Oscar Isaac in Joel and Ethan Coen’s INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (Photo : Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC)
"There are men who struggle for a day and they are good. There are men who struggle for a year and they are better. There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still. But there are those who struggle all their lives: These are the indispensable ones," said revolutionary playwright Bertholt Brecht. The idea of struggle to assert oneself and create a meaningful existence is the essential conflict in everyone's life. This concept dominates the Coen Brother's latest effort "Inside Llewyn Davis" as it encapsulates the journey of a failed musician trying to re-establish a career that seems to be slipping away from him.
Set in 1960s' downtown New York, the film tells the story of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a folk singer who not only has trouble finding a stable gig, but is also has no home and is constantly on the lookout for a friend's place to crash at for the night. The opening showcases a performance by Davis; after finishing up, he is told that a friend is waiting for him in the back alley. This "friend" is a silhouette figure that beats Llewyn to the pulp for "opening his mouth;" Llewyn objects to this accusation by stating that it is his job is to do open his mouth. This play on words (which carries a different significance later in the film), gives the viewer a clear indication that Llewyn has no place in the world at the moment; the shadowy figure could be anyone that has rejected (and will continue to reject) Llewyn as the film progresses. In the ensuing scene, Llewyn finds himself in a nice midtown apartment that is empty save for a cat that follows him around. He makes his way out of the apartment, letting the cat out by accident and being forced to carry it about before he gets a chance to return it to its owners. Llewyn heads downtown where he runs to Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean's (Carrie Mulligan) apartment; there he discovers that Jean is pregnant and may be expecting his child. For the remainder of the film, the character embarks on a Homeric odyssey (this is no coincidence as the film will later reveal) to get his career back on track while dealing with personal issues that include his traumatic past.
The power of the film comes from Llewyn's own complexity. He is far from your good-hearted hero that has fallen on hard times. He is ambitious, jealous, obnoxious, pretentious and even rude at some points. During one scene in the coffee shop, another singer that Llewyn has recently met in a previous scene tells the audience that there is a special artist in the house. Llewyn automatically thinks he is one being referred to and starts whining about not having his guitar to play. He quickly realizes that he has erred and is not as important to people as he once thought. In another scene, he gets called in for a recording session by Jim and starts complaining about the song; his comments seem to disappoint Jim, who reveals that he was the composer of the quirky song (that will undoubtedly make viewers laugh). In another scene he shouts at one of his friends for trying to sing along with him, an action that really makes the viewer question his/her allegiance to the character.
Despite these moments, the Coens and Isaac manage to get the audience to identify with Llewyn and his frustration. While it is clear that some of the other artists may be nothing more than hacks, the performances that Llewyn puts on display are some of the most powerful moments in the film and showcase his artistic integrity. Shot in long takes, these close-ups reveal the complete immersion of Llewyn in his art. Every note is brimming with intense emotion and the viewer cannot feel but be entranced by the artistic endeavor taking place. Most films that showcase musical numbers often cut to other elaborate visual set pieces to keep the audience interested; the Coens keep it simple and let Isaac work his magic to powerful effect. During these performances, the viewer cannot help but feel that everything is going to be okay for Llewyn and it is truly heart-breaking to hear the other characters' inability to appreciate his art once the performance has come to an end. It is in these moments that the viewer not only participates in Llewyn's artistic endeavor, but also in his struggle and frustrations. At one point in the story, the character travels to Chicago to meet with a potential manager; he gives a brilliant performance but is told that there is "no money in this." This particular scene is one of the most painful to watch.
Isaac is a revelation as Llewyn with his temperamental demeanor that feels more like a self-defense mechanism than the true personality of the character. He seems to put others down with well-timed one-liners in attempts to establish himself as the successful veteran. However, there are other scenes of profound vulnerability that showcase the character seemingly growing weaker by the minute. In one particular scene with Mulligan's Jean in a New York City park, Llewyn stands quietly as she repeatedly flings expletives at him for his behavior. Most people would likely punch her in the face for her hostility, but Llewyn just takes it all and tries to remain calm. Close-ups of Llewyn in this scene reveal a man that is actually hurt by her words, but the pain is not one of pride but of a more profound human quality. As noted earlier, the musical performances are the highlight of the Isaac's portrayal as it reveals the character's vulnerability to incredible effect. Never does Llewyn feel more alive than in those moments.
While this is clearly Isaac's show, the other supporting characters make their mark as well. Mulligan is nasty and spiteful as Jean while Timberlake's Jim is the polar opposite of his lover; his character is kind and even a bit naïve. Garrett Hedlund remains quiet throughout the film, but has a rather non-chalant attitude that is quite humorous. However, the supporting cast member to make the biggest impression is undoubtedly frequent Coen Brothers collaborator John Goodman as musician Roland Turner. Goodman is quit vocal about his dislike for Llewyn throughout their lengthy road trip together and the scenes between the two characters come off as subtly testy confrontations of wit and humor.
Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel shoots the film with cool desaturated tones that add to the prickly environment of downtown New York. This is a hostile environment where true friends are hard to find for Llewyn and the overall look and feel of the film is a far cry from the glitzy portrayals of the music industry in other films. "Inside Llewyn Davis" moves along at a brisk pace that never lags or lacks in creativity. Even when Llewyn is confined to a car for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, the dialogue between Goodman and Isaac's characters manage to keep the audience engaged and entertained. As seems usual with the Coens, the film's structure features a unique twist that serves to answer questions about the film's mysterious opening, but also opens up existential questions in how it fits into the narrative progression and timeline of the story. It is truly difficult to explore this further without spoiling it; while spoiling an ending is undeniably a disservice to any film, it is particularly criminal in the context of "Inside Llewyn Davis." While this is not the story of a traditional hero that finds blazing fame in show business, it showcases a hero willing to do anything for his artistic integrity regardless of the consequences. The film almost confronts the viewer with the question of "How much are you willing to suffer for your integrity?" Many would answer with rather predictable affirmative responses, but then the Coens pose yet another powerful question evidenced by Llewyn's struggle: "Is it really worth it to suffer for integrity when taking the easier route could get you closer to where you really want to be?"
The Coen Brothers are legends at this point with such terrific films as "A Serious Man," "The Big Lebowski," Fargo" and "No Country for Old Men." However, "Llewyn Davis" is possibly their most powerful film in its ability to tap into the universal creative struggle of not only the artist, but every human being.