Inside Llewyn Davis has everything in perfect harmony

Oscar Isaac is outstanding in the Coen brothers funny but also heartbreaking new film INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS.

What a part for an actor. To be in every frame of a movie. That’s one thing. It’s something else if they can pull off an outstanding performance as well, particularly when they have to act alongside singing and playing original music on guitar. That’s the accomplishment of Oscar Isaac in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the beautifully funny and heartfelt new film from Joel and Ethan Coen.

Carey Mulligan as Jean and Oscar Isaac as Llewyn in Inside Llewyn Davis

Carey Mulligan as Jean and Oscar Isaac as Llewyn have a complicated relationship

Llewyn is a folk singer. Having left his life in the merchant marines behind, he’s now trying to break through into the music scene in Greenwich Village in 1961. He was one half of a duo called Timlin & Davis but his partner decided that throwing himself off the George Washington bridge would make more sense and so that’s left Llewyn to forge a solo career. He has an agent who doesn’t seem to be making much headway for him and no apartment, which means he has to constantly rely on friends and acquaintances for places to stay.

There are the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), a well-to-do couple who regularly invite him round for dinner and introduce him to their eclectic group of friends, which as we see, usually ends with an argument and tears on the part of Lillian the wife, as Llewyn once again cannot curb his habit of saying things that to him seem honest but which to others are hurtful; then there’s Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), a folk-singing (and romantic) partnership with whom Llewyn has a love/hate relationship, mostly because of the slight complication that he’s in love with Jean.

However, it’s the Gorfein’s gorgeous ginger cat who becomes Llewyn’s unwitting travel companion in this week in his life we’re watching and who provides him (and us) with a telling emotional connection on his journey. In these initial scenes, we see immediately one of Llewyn’s problems, that his personality can be so outspoken, so caustic because he feels he’s in the right, that it alienates the very people who could help him. Llewyn makes fun (as you feel the Coens also do) of the other folk groups he sees at the local cafe, with their knitted sweaters and earnest ballads and although his music is certainly more meaningful and at times, beautifully poetic (not unlike the songs of the man who was about to blow the whole music scene apart with his arrival, a certain Mr Bob Dylan) can Llewyn learn to make different choices when it comes to his career, which then may give his life some hope?

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn in Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn sings his heart out

As Llewyn, and anchoring the whole film, is Oscar Isaac and readers of this blog will know how much I’ve admired his work to date, in smaller supporting roles in films like Robin Hood, Drive and The Bourne Legacy – here he’s rightly given centre stage in a role that showcases him as both an actor and an enviably talented musician brilliantly. I’ve read how Joel and Ethan Coen were fearful that having created this character, would there be an actor out there who could not only nail a dramatic scene but also credibly sing and play whole musical numbers? Their prayers were more than answered by Isaac, who performs T-Bone Burnett’s incredible collection of songs with heartfelt urgency but also makes Llewyn a complex and ultimately likeable individual. I’m sure this is the breakthrough role that people have commented it is for him because we’ll soon see Isaac in movies by Hossein Amini, Alex Garland and J.C. Chandor, so they’ve all recognised too what a charismatic screen presence he has.

What struck me about INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, as it has with a number of the current crop of movies that are nominated for big awards in the upcoming season, was that there’s a much more serious and at points, really heartbreaking story here than the predominantly funny trailers seemed to suggest – that was certainly true of American Hustle. There is humour here, the kind of humour that only Joel and Ethan Coen can give us – sometimes laugh out loud, sometimes black, sometimes whimsical – but they have also given us one of their very finest, dramatically soulful pieces of work, right up there with one of my favourites from their incredible body of work, The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Llewyn, Jim and Al sing Please Mr Kennedy in Inside lLewyn Davis

Llewyn, Jim and Al sing Please Mr Kennedy

They recreate the folk music period with the same loving detail as they did the Old West for their recent stunning version of True Grit, the wintry New York and Chicago streets beautifully brought to life by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and of course, they always have the most mouth-watering collection of actors to inhabit their very original characters. Apart from Isaac, there’s Carey Mulligan who has never been so vitriolic as she is here as Jean but there’s also a spark of warmth too as she finds herself helping Llewyn in spite of how he angers her.

John Goodman returns wonderfully to the Coen brothers ensemble as a decidedly off-centre jazz musician Roland Turner, looked after by Garrett Hedlund’s almost silent beat poet Johnny-Five and there’s excellent work from Justin Timberlake as Jim and Adam Driver as young folk singer Al Cody, who memorably shine in their relatively small roles, in particular in the stand-out scene where they and Llewyn record the slightly silly but very catchy song ‘Please Mr Kennedy’; finally we have the great F. Murray Abraham in a superlative cameo as music impresario Bud Grossman and the scene where Llewyn puts everything on the line to impress him in the hope of securing a gig, is one of the most poignant you’ll see in any Coen brothers movie.

Success and failure are on an ever-present knife-edge for any artist and this film shows us, via a marvellously nostalgic setting, how promising but also how cruel that life can be. It’s another exceptional piece of work from those geniuses, Joel and Ethan Coen.