It’s about traditional American music, long a strong presence on soundtracks for the brothers’ remarkable films. And it’s also about a protagonist who’s a serious-minded loser along the lines of “Barton Fink” and “A Serious Man.”
It features yet another astonishing performance from an actor who’s not a star — or at least not yet. This would be Oscar Isaac, who is hypnotically watchable as a messed-up and often quite funny folk singer a year or so before being a folk singer would become fashionable.
More remarkable still, Isaac learned to sing a repertoire of songs in compelling fashion along with a finger-picking style of guitar playing, which the Coens and music producer T Bone Burnett insisted on recording live.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” will probably be an acquired taste — the story sort of meanders without any major destination in mind — but for aficionados of Joel and Ethan Coen movies and of folk music itself the movie is a must.
The story takes place in and around Greenwich Village in 1961. It’s a time of a new movement, when folk music is about to come together with other forms such as blues and ballads, but this has not quite happened yet.
Into the dark, almost sterile, smokey atmosphere of the Gaslight Club comes Llewyn Davis (Isaac), a self-absorbed fellow who burns up friendships and sponges off family with careless abandon.
On the night of the film’s wonderfully shot opening scene, he sings the kind of bleak song about a hanging that the Kingston Trio would later popularize:
“Hang me, oh hang me I’ll be dead and gone/I wouldn’t mind the hanging, it’s just the laying in the grave so long.”
The Coens base Davis on a real-life figure from that era, Dave Van Ronk, a working-class dude who split his life between music and jobs as a merchant seaman. Playing folk music in 1961 is, in this portrayal, akin to taking a vow of poverty.
No clubs other than the Gaslight, where you more or less pass the hat, will let you perform. And only little record companies may let you cut a record. Forget about making dough though as there’s no money to pay for anything like real distribution.
This is illustrated in a hilarious scene in which Davis goes to his label in the dead of winer and all the aging owner can do is hand him his own coat against the Manhattan chill.
Indeed the movie starts off with so many funny sequences that you’re not quite prepared for the dour turn of events as the movie progresses.
These humorous scenes include Davis’ put-upon sister (Jeanine Serralles), a cat belonging to a pair of academics (Ethan Phillips, Robin Barrett) — whose escape preoccupies Davis for any number of scenes — and his crashing at the pad of singers Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan).
Jean is furious at Davis for getting her pregnant. The foul-mouthed woman cannot imagine any fault lies with her and indeed can’t even be certain Davis is in fact the father. It’s undisputedly one of the Coens’ funniest scenes ever.
The movie goes off on tangents though. In fact, the entire movie can be considered one long tangent. There’re scenes of Davis scurrying after the cat, whose name he doesn’t even know. Then there’s the business of getting Jean an abortion only to discover the last woman he sent to this doctor never went through with it.
The latter would be the inciting incident for most films but “Llewyn Davis” simply shrugs this off. Then a buddy gets him a recording session gig for a goofy novelty song — to which he doesn’t even bring his Gibson guitar. Finally, a protracted road trip to Chicago features Garrett Hedlund as a mostly mute driver and a slovenly John Goodman as a sarcastic back-seat companion.
This does land our hero in what may be the film’s central moment (I think), an audition for a Chicago club owner. But this is the story of Llewyn Davis, not Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs or Peter, Paul and Mary. So you know how this will go.
Soon our hero is back in New York dealing with vanishing cats and vanishing club dates.
This is the fourth time the Coens have worked with T Bone Burnett on music for a film. They’re getting awfully damn good at it. The music alone is worth the price of admission.
Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Jess Gonchor paint the early folk scene in about as dark a palette as possible — mostly dark blues and grays with the intrusion of little red through the film. Even the weather cooperates with this winter-of-our-discontent color scheme.
The film and its soulful music catch the folk movement on the cusp of respectability, meaning money. A small band of true believers outside the mainstream of American culture, lord their independence over everyone including pissed-off family members and pregnant lovers.
They represent their own religious order, their own ethnicity, and do things according to their own wills and wants. They spurn anything that doesn’t lead directly to the music. They’ll sleep on couches or in the streets if necessary.
As Davis says after singing the opening song, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, it’s a folk song.”
Amen to that.
Opens: December 6, 2013 Los Angeles, New York (CBS Films)
Production company: Studiocanal
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips, Robin Barrett, Max Cassella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Alex Karposvky, F. Murray Abraham
Directors/screenwriters: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Producers: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Executive producers: Robert Graf, Olivier Courson, Ron Halperin
Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Executive music producer: T Bone Burnett
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Roderick James
R rating, 105 minutes