One of the casualties of the 86th Academy Awards nominations, the Coen Brothers Inside Llewyn Davis tells the story of a struggling folk musician in 1960s New York.
Struggling musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is trying to forge a solo career following the death of his singing partner. He spends his days moving from friends and colleagues couches as he desperately tries to make a living, but a series of mishaps always prevent him from truly succeeding. Faced with the prospect of rejoining the merchant navy, he decides to travel to Chicago for one final shot at success.
Packed with wonderful musical interludes, which breakup the dramatic thrust, Inside Llewyn Davis is a rich character study that looks at the fine line between success and artistic expression. Our protagonist, with his Welsh-influenced name (likening him to the great Bob Dylan) is a failing musician, desperate for people to take his music seriously and is full of seething anger, which occasionally boils to the surface. He has a series of failing relationships with singing duo Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), whose brand of popular music mystifies and irritates him.
While all sympathy from the audience is with him, the Coens do a great job of highlighting why he may not be successful. His soulful folk music is beautifully presented and wonderful to listen to, but the most memorable song ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’ is a full-blown pop song, which shows why he may not be as popular as we wishes he could be. The endless line of people who criticise his performance and lifestyle constantly reinforce the idea that he is not cutout for a life in successful music, even if we as an audience want him to be.
The wide empty shots and fading perspective corridors all belie a standard Coen Brothers film. The hodgepodge of characters has every bit the charisma and charm of their previous works. During Davis’ prolonged journey up to Chicago for instance, he ends up sharing a car with a silent and smouldering poet (Garrett Hedlund) and a pretentious and sometimes unbearable jazz musician (the wonderful John Goodman). Letting his frustrations bubble over again, Llewyn manages to need and despise their help.
This is the story of a struggling artist who can’t marry his lack of popularity with his own artistic expression. There are so many instances of him missing the golden moment that could define his career and set him up. The audience are in on the joke and while the events of tragically predictable; they are also understandable for his well-developed and incredibly acted character.
The real triumph of the film is the grey area surrounding the central character himself. It is never explicitly told whether he is an undiscovered genius surrounded by incompetent popular music hacks, or whether his talent really isn’t enough to separate him from everyone else. His style of music is soon to be made very popular by the arrival of the legendary Bob Dylan, but there’s a sense that even with this sudden shift in popular music on the horizon that he may somehow still not be able to succeed. Is a musician destined to always just miss out on opportunity or will be rise to be as successful as he thinks he should be? Everyone will have their own interpretation.
What is obvious is that Inside Llewyn Davis is another hit for the Coen Brothers. Rich in design, style and performance, it is great film-making from great film-makers. The fact that the story of an underdog who never quite succeeds should be so wrongly ignored by the Academy is definitely apt. But it certainly isn’t fair.