The Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" is more than just a look at an out-of-luck singer, it's a metaphor for the struggle that defines being human.
"It was never new, but it never gets old … it's a folk song" – the immortal first words of Llewyn Davis capture the poignant realisation of his inside story; a gritty allegory for the turbulent life of this talented young musician who can never seem to escape the shadow of his fate and the limits of his creativity.
The scene is Greenwich Village, smothered in the remnants of the beat generation and characterised by the pale clouds of the winter cold. It's a bleak setting of silent revolution, and the marks of bad karma for one Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaacs), whose life of recurring bad luck sends him spiralling after he allows the Gorfeins' cat to escape their West End apartment where just the night before he had inhabited the comfort of their couch. Llewyn's life is little more than a torrent of two activities: scrounging for the next gig, and the next sofa to crash on for the night – his life is a repeating journey of hardships, endlessly hoping for that elusive "big break" after his former partner committed suicide, but as he descends further into self-inflicted poverty, his days slowly dwindle as he systematically burns all of his bridges.
The filmmaking duo of Joel and Ethan Coen is as impeccable as ever – pacing fine-tuned to an art form with cinematography that is a stylistic gem to behold. Their storytelling may have evolved significantly since Barton Fink, but Inside Llewyn Davis retains that dark wit the brothers have become known for. But this film is more than the sum of its parts: it manages to be a generational marker of a period that the filmmakers have frequently drawn inspiration from throughout their careers. It's not strictly a musical, nor is it strictly a drama, it's a genre-defying piece that, more importantly, embodies the ideal of a time when life itself was more akin to the folk music of old – stoic, rooted in the trials of emotion, and with the story of a character who is never all that likeable nor wretched in his pursuits; it is this uncertainty, this morally grey quality that defines Inside Llewyn Davis.
One element does remain a constant: nobody writes dialogue like the Coens. The foundation of the story may be a depressing leopard-crawl through the dark, snake-infested pits of the social cesspool, but the script is littered with comedic quips and exchanges of wit that would liven even The Passion of the Christ with its devilish delight in intellect. These moments are the treasures buried in the fiction of a story that plays out as the blueprint for the life of any individual who has ever struggled in the journey of living a life fuelled by love, as opposed to the malaise associated with a month-to-month existence of perpetual dissatisfaction.
The heart of the film may be Oscar Isaacs's harrowing portrayal of Davis, but the soul is most certainly the soundtrack – an eclectic mix of folk sounds hewn from the heritage of the Bob Dylans and Pete Seegers of the 50s and 60s – performed by stars Isaacs, Justin Timberlake, and Carey Mulligan (among others) that binds this film's hellish struggle together. The folk song is a metaphor for Llewyn's journey, a character overcome by ego and tempered by apathy – he cares little for friends or family and his only semblance of concern for the cat who he believes to be owned by the Gorfeins, this being second to his music.
Davis's metier is not that of a folk singer, but rather that of the enduring herald. The story is less about a man who seems to have run out of good luck and more the tale of the human condition. The slog through the mud is not just one that auteurs undergo, nor is it one reserved for the hip or for the principled nonconformist – there is a struggle in the lives of all mankind and for better or worse, we all fall on hard times.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the product of the Coen brothers' continued refinement of their style, but it's a new colour in their palate, a sense of restraint veils the production with an air of morose hopelessness. It is challenging, thought-provoking, thoroughly introspective, and a film that not only defines a generation but provides a hedge-trimmer to the intellectual thicket of modern society. Inside Llewyn Davis may not have been nominated for an Oscar, but it is one of the most important films to release in years, and will be remembered as such.
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