Inside Llewyn Davis: A Review
The Gaslight Café was a spiritual homeland to fans and performers of folk music in New York throughout the 1960s. It was where artists such as Bob Dylan found their roots, and subsequently felt like a very appropriate setting for Inside Llewyn Davis. Perched above a sea of smoke, beneath a single light, Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis) sets the tone of the film, as he strums out yet another set with Dave Van Ronk’s ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’. He cynically quips, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” The line that instantly became the staple of the film.
Written and directed by the infamous Coen brothers, who have always used music as a tool to tune their work; a film focused on music was not entirely anticipated, but made a lot of sense. Joel and Ethan’s filmmaking methods are not exactly out of the manual, which works remarkably well when dealing with drifting nomads such as Llewyn. Llewyn, whose influence I believe was drawn from Van Ronk and his book ‘The Mayor of MacDougal Street’, is the portrait of every struggling folk singer on the streets of New York before the likes of Dylan got the scene going. He trudges through the perfectly recreated setting, with only the clothes on his back, his old guitar, and occasionally, a ginger cat. A real talent of the Coen brothers has always been their ability to inject their films with their own atmosphere, and no talents were wasted here, with warm interiors and the cold glow of winter, they’ve really completed the package that is Llewyn’s life.
It doesn’t exactly come as a surprise that Llewyn’s career is not doing so well. Once part of a duo, establishing himself as a solo artist is not as easy as he seems to think. He is confronted by the harsh realities of the music industry, and despite his endeavors, Llewyn’s music just isn’t well received. Record companies don’t see any money in him, and he is weary of playing at the Gaslight time and time again. The film is a series of knockbacks, many of which are self-inflicted, as he continually alienates himself from his friends and family. He cannot hold down one stable relationship; not even the cat sticks around for very long. He is desperate for success as a musician, but unwilling to adopt the appropriate attitudes, even when it comes to accepting help from others. The struggle is an internal one, and Llewyn is reluctant to open himself to new approaches to his lifestyle. He is confused as to why nice-guy Troy Nelson is succeeding, while he is still slumming on the couches of the very few friends he has left. He is his own worst enemy, and even though you don’t know whom it is that’s found attacking him in the alleyway, you can’t help but get the sense that this is some form of karmic retribution.
Llewyn Davis definitely joins the Coen Brothers’ string of loveble rogues. And while it was almost completely snubbed by the Academy, Inside Llewyn Davis is easily one of the best films this year has seen so far. Standing out amongst the January film surge as a bittersweet look at a widely romanticised time period. With enthralling performances from Oscar Isaac (live performances, might I add), that will stay with you for days. Pulled off in a way that only The Coens can, and despite it’s melancholic threads, this film will leave you in high spirits, and longing for another viewing.