The Coen Brothers take us to 1960s New York where cinematic style, narrative structure, and folk music shape their latest flick.
Oscar Isaac stars as an adroit Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk musician trying to make a name for himself in times of difficulty. The film begins by showing our tragic hero being beaten up by a shadowed character behind the iconic Gaslight Cafe, motives behind the violence are currently unknown. After spending the night at one of his friend’s house he then travels to crash at someone else’s, namely Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). The former, with his chirpy and congenial disposition, comes across as a loyal friend to Llewyn and the latter shows her distinct forlornness as she tells Llewyn she’s pregnant and the baby may be his.
Jean demands he pay for an abortion and, so, whilst taking care of an escaped cat, he agrees to record a hilarious and catchy novelty song with Jim and Al (Adam Driver) to get some much needed cash. Having to commute across New York yet again, he attends a friend’s dinner party and is asked to play guitar, he chooses to play a tune written by his deceased friend Mike but becomes overcome with emotion as someone sings Mike’s vocals, he leaves in a tantrum, taking yet another feline with him.
He decides to go to Chicago in order to possibly get a record deal, hitching a ride with the steely Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and the contemptuous Roland Turner (John Goodman). Many of the road scenes include some stellar Coen Brothers dialogue, as Roland spitefully chastises Llewyn for playing folk music and not his beloved jazz. After being stopped by the police, Johnny is taken to the station leaving Llewyn, Roland and the cat in the freezing car with no keys. Llewyn makes a deliberate decision to leave both his furry friend and an unconscious Roland in the car as he walks the rest of the way.
He finally arrives at Chicago and plays one of his many beautifully conducted pieces to a record executive. Playing the whole song with pristine perfection and artistic caliber, we’re shocked to witness his rejection. After telling him he’s not a natural lead singer, the executive offers him a role in a trio, to which Llewyn declines and decides to return to New York.
After his dreams are somewhat shattered he attempts to rejoin the sea marines but lacking the money and losing his sea licence means he can’t even do that. Llewyn returns to the Gaslight, inebriated and cynical he heckles a woman on stage before he’s told someone would like to speak to him outback. The film ends by showing our tragic hero being beaten up by a shadowed character behind the iconic Gaslight Cafe.
The ending resonated the bizarre tone of their other film ‘Burn After Reading’, difficult to comprehend, yes, but after a closer look we realise that they were displaying the cyclical nature of the music industry. That there are thousands of Llewyn Davis’ in the world who try and fail, this despondent treatment of stardom is their way of also defying the glossy, sugar-coated Hollywood endings which invariably don’t typically happen in real life, a characteristic also seen in ‘No Country For Old Men’.
All in all, Inside Llewyn Davis has some great performances, especially from a musical point of view, as well as the class and exclusivity of any Coen Bros. film.