By Richie Angel
“Hey, look…I’m really happy for the gig but who…who wrote this?”
From the identical album art to Oscar Isaac’s stirring covers of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and “Dink’s Song” (the latter featuring Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons) Inside Llewyn Davis honors 1960’s folk singer Dave Van Ronk and his time in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Beyond those allusions, the Coen Brothers’ dark comedy is laden with historical liberties, but the departure from historicity is not to be confused with a lack of substance in the Coens’ artful entry.
Inside Llewyn Davis is named for the character’s solo album, which is not selling as he had hoped. Perpetually penniless and struggling to find success in the Village folk scene, Llewyn crashes on a different couch every night between gigs, looks after a cat he accidentally let out of a friend’s apartment, and mourns the recent death of his singing partner. But Llewyn’s increasing bitterness tests the hospitality of his friends as he watches one musician after another catching the break Llewyn thinks should be his.
Between the two, this movie feels more like a Coen film than a biography. But mostly, it feels like a folk song. Typically, a “genre film” contains the trappings of a certain genre of film. For Inside Llewyn Davis, however, the Coens crafted a genre film using a genre of music. For example, the movie starts and ends in the same place, granting additional clarity in its final echoes—but only clarity of fact, not of purpose. In this case, as in many others, the portrait painted by this folk song of a film is tonally sepia as it documents the melancholy, episodic meanderings of a man’s journey to find peace. There are recurring themes and characters, the meaning of which is not always apparent (does the cat represent sanity? Normalcy? Opportunity? Llewyn’s friend?), and although some of the misadventures are outlandish enough to challenge the suspension of disbelief, the Coens inevitably return every time with a poignant sequence of longing, fear, and self-doubt. The music itself is breathtaking and was recorded live on set.
Folk musicians will feel especially at home within the movie’s runtime, but every viewer will experience a uniquely immersive representation of a genre that may be foreign to their musical catalog but is universally familiar to the human soul. The film features other genre-transcending reminders that success doesn’t always come to the most deserving—not the people who sacrifice the most for their art, nor the songs that cut the deepest with their sincerity. But like a folk song, the point is not the injustice but the beauty and the inexplicable drive to keep trying.
Inside Llewyn Davis offers a chance unlike any other film to spend 105 minutes living inside of a song, punctuated by depth, humanity, and a reminder to always ensure that your contract includes royalties. And that’s why every musician should watch Inside Llewyn Davis.