Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a follower of the filmmaking Coen Brothers (and you should be), then you are quite aware of their complete lack of artistic interest in any traditionally successful character. Their work is inspired by life’s obstacles and tough luck, even if brought on by a character’s own poor judgment. Coen Bros stories revolve around those who carry on and have (blind?) faith that their approach, no matter how ill conceived, is the only option … the only path worth taking. Their main character this time out apparently thinks life is filled with only careerists (sell-outs) or losers (those who can’t catch a break).
The titular Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is introduced to us onstage at the Gaslight singing a beautiful folk song. Moments later he is lying in the back alley after taking a whipping from a mysterious stranger. It’s not until this scene is repeated again for the film’s finale do we understand the cause of this effect. See, Llewyn is not a very likable guy. We learn he is still grieving from the suicide of his musical partner (as sung by Marcus Mumford), and that he bounces from sofa to sofa amongst acquaintances and family members. Llewyn has no friends, only acquaintances too kind to throw him out … even if he might be the father of an unwanted baby, or if he accidentally allows a beloved pet cat to escape, or he uses excess profanity in front of kids.
The story is based in the folk music scene of 1961 Greenwich Village in the pre-Bob Dylan days. The Coen’s were inspired by the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk entitled “The Mayor of MacDougal Street“. So while the songs are real and the characters are often inspired or based upon real artists of the time, Llewyn’s story is pure Coen fiction. From a viewer’s perspective, that means cringing, levels of discomfort, uneasy chuckling and moments of rapture … such as John Goodman evoking a drugged out Doc Promus spewing harsh poetic diatribes.
We never really know if the Coens are making a statement or tossing it out for us to debate. Are they saying that even the ugliness of Llewyn’s personality can produce something as beautiful as music, or are they saying that we allow ourselves to get tricked by beautiful music into thinking that the artist must also be pure? Carey Mulligan (as Jean) has one of the film’s best and most insightful lines when she tells Llewyn he is “King Midas’ idiot brother“. Her pure disgust (and expert rendering of the F-word) and anger contrasts with her angelic onstage persona with husband Jim (Justin Timberlake).
As always, the Coens provide us a constant flow of interesting and oddball characters. In addition to Goodman’s jazz hipster, we get Garrett Hedlund as an ultra cool (til he’s not) valet, Adam Driver as a cowboy folk singer, Troy Nelson as a virtuous Army folk singer (based on Tom Paxton), and Llewyn’s Upper East side cat owners, his spunky sister, and best of all F Murray Abraham as Bud Grossman, the owner of Chicago’s Gate of Horn club. Based on the real Albert Grossman who discovered Peter, Paul and Mary, and managed Bob Dylan (whose spirit lingers all through this movie), Grossman is the lone witness to Llewyn’s audition. This may be the most touching musical moment of the movie (“The Death of Queen Jane”), but it’s clearly the wrong song for the moment.
Oscar Isaac is exceptional as Llewyn Davis. He captures that crisis of self that’s necessary for an artist whose talent and passion is just out of step with societal changes. We feel his pain, but fail to understand the lack of caring he often displays towards others. We get how his need for money overrides his artistic integrity as he participates in the absurd novelty song “Please Mr Kennedy”. Why Isaac’s performance is not garnering more Oscar chat is beyond my understanding. It’s possibly due to the fact that the movie and his character are not readily accessible to the average movie goer. Effort, thought and consideration is required.
If you are expecting a feel good nostalgic trip down the folk singer era of Greenwich Village, you will be shocked and disappointed. Instead, brace yourself for the trials of a talented musician who wrongly believes the music should be enough. Speaking of music, the immensely talented T Bone Burnett is the man behind the music and it’s fascinating to note how he allows the songs to guide us through the story and keep us ever hopeful of better days. This is the Coen Brothers at their most refined and expert.
**NOTE: It’s kind of interesting to think that both this movie and Saving Mr Banks are both based in 1961 and the two films are being released at the same time in 2013. Though totally unrelated, they do provide a stark contrast in NYC vs LA.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a Coen Bros fan or past due for an introduction
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you’ve tried, but Coen Bros humor is just a bit too dark or esoteric for your tastes
watch the trailer: