“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
– Llewyn Davis, Inside Llewyn Davis
I must admit I tend to have a habit of overestimating or underestimating a film’s merit. With the case of Inside Llewyn Davis, it was the latter. Given the Coen brothers’ reputation, I should expect something good, but ‘good’ was all I could hope for. Well, I was sorely mistaken: what I did not expect was how great the film turned out to be, how its protagonist resonated so much with me that it hurts and how the soundtrack carries such significance to the overall narrative.
Inside Llewyn Davis follows a week in the life of the title character, Llewyn Davis (superbly played by Oscar Isaac), a talented folk singer with significant character flaws. His gift for music is undeniable, but he’s also undeniably rude, bitter and self-loathing. It is his character flaws, or his lack of awareness of them, that act as his main obstacles to success. Throughout the (somewhat faithful) seven days of his life, we see him going through an uphill battle against his personal troubles. He tries to fix things with a friend (Carey Mulligan), whom he accidentally impregnated. He struggles to get his solo career started while mourning the loss of his former partner, who committed suicide (perhaps he ran into the same issues as Llewyn, but he could no longer take it). Overall, I believe, he is constantly trying to comprehend the world he inhabits, while on a hopeless quest to seek others’ understanding. That is what turns a potentially unlikeable protagonist into one so universally relatable.
To me, the best movies are the ones where the main character doesn’t realize the only thing, or at least the main thing, stopping them from achieving their goals is themselves. Inside Llewyn Davis is one of them: thanks to Oscar Isaac’s phenomenal portrayal, we see a lot of ourselves in his character. We know that everyone has flaws, but not everyone realizes their problems, and even fewer would go the distance to try and resolve them. Film critic Adam Johnston says this in relation to the movie: “It’s not about trying to create sympathy for the character, making you glad it’s not you; it’s about relating to the character in a way that hurts so much because it IS you.” We never get to see Llewyn Davis happy, but none of us would imagine being joyful under his circumstances: this is a man with the potential to make it big, but just making it alone is monumentally difficult. When we have empathy for the character, we hope good things happen to him, for it represents our hopes of making it in an increasingly uncertain world. A scene that resonates with me occurs towards the end of the film: after Llewyn finishes his gig at a local café, the next performer to go onstage is revealed to be a young Bob Dylan. Dylan, who is basically a god of folk at this point, was an intolerable bastard in his early years: he was extremely narcissistic, he patronized reporters and fellow performers and was beyond pretentious. I guess the message is that Dylan’s greatness comes not just from his music, but also by transcending the problematic aspects of his character.
Inside Llewyn Davis is one of those monuments that can only be achieved if you have been in the screen trade long enough. The Coen brothers succeeded in conveying a genuine feel to the film. Everything from the general early 60s folk scene to the everyday personal quirks are recreated to perfection. The cinematography and lighting helps sustain the film’s darkly comic tone. The film’s soundtrack cannot be more fitting to the narrative: as the film progresses, the songs carries much more significance because they reflect the most important parts of Llewyn’s past, his worldview and his desperation. With this film, Joel and Ethan Coen show an extraordinary amount of control over their elements, solidifying their legendary statuses.
It’s hard to create a character so complex, yet so relatable. The Coen brothers, after decades of working in the film industry, have accomplished just that. The film portrays a time different from ours, but the message is still resonating. As a result, like Llewyn would suggest, the film doesn’t feel old or new, similar to a folk song.