This is perhaps the saddest film I have seen in a while. The fact that it is also lovely and funny makes me even sadder. Not because it is an unhappy film but because it craves for joy in helpless desperation. This film is not about a persevering hero, it is about a self-deceived loser. This film is not about the talented but those who don't want to sell out. They just aren’t aware that they have nothing to sell, except their soul (to the devil, probably). This film is about the people who never made it. It is made by the Coen brothers, the artists who care deeply about art and its effect on humanity.
Llewyn Davis is at the center of this odyssey. Oscar Isaac lends his tangible performance to this character. His voice is not the kind that will shake the earth or make music feel alive. Perhaps that’s why he was chosen to play this part. He isn’t a known face. He isn’t a known voice. It does not “connect” with the audience, the way perhaps Justin Timberlake’s voice does.
The characters on the outside are played by the pop star mentioned above and Carey Mulligan. They sing a beautiful version of “500 Miles”. You can sense how they work the audience. There is also a character based on Tom Paxton who sings us a wonderful rendition of “The Last Thing On My Mind”.
An essential character, that defines Llewyn’s strengths and misgivings. The cat. I would love to write more about him but words fail me as I remember the eyes.
A road trip stands at the middle of the film. Llewyn meets the Coen-staple John Goodman and we see certain truths being thrown at him. We see chances offered to him, just not the one he desires.
There’s a scene involving a character called Bud Grossman played by one of the most stark faces cinema has ever seen – F. Murray Abraham. Llewyn comes to him for his one big break and sings “The Death of Queen Anne” to him. This scene reeks of honesty, in song and dialogue. It’s not a coincidence that this actor was in Amadeus (1984), a film about a man who always wanted to be Mozart but could never be. He simply didn’t have the gift. He is based on the real life character called Albert Grossman who managed the careers of Bob Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary.
American folk music speaks to me in a manner I can’t explain. I have been in love with Woody Guthrie, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan’s music as long as I remember loving music. You can feel its downcast pith when Llweyn sings. Especially “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” where he sings his heart out. Whatever is left of it anyway. He then follows it with “Farewell”, a song Dylan sang but it never made it to an album of his, only appearing on bootlegs. Left out in lieu of others that were presumably better.
If there are any contemporary filmmakers who I have not just immense admiration for but genuine love, it is the Coen brothers. They know the art of cinema at the back of their hand and never show off about it. If filmmakers like Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch saw their movies they would have had smiles on their faces throughout (I'm looking at you Hudsucker Proxy). Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Howard Hawks would be proud of their students learning their techniques well. Billy Wilder and Orson Welles would snigger with envy. The living legends - Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen recognize them as the primary American talents carrying the baton from them. Their films are never Hollywood. They are American. They speak of a time and place. They speak of people from a time and place. Their films manifest the human condition, not just spit out some intellectual blabbering. This is all done with a poetic immediacy. This is all done with the most wonderful gift we have – humor.
The most remarkable spell of Inside Llewyn Davis appears in the final 15 minutes of the film. It comes full circle and we see two characters whose faces are hidden, one of them is an iconic voice. It made sense out of this Sisyphus-ian journey. It made me feel this tragic lament of an unsung hero. It made me find optimism hidden beneath. It made me speak to Llewyn Davis from the inside.