I suppose I should start this review with a disclaimer of sorts. I love folk music. I mean, I luuuuuuuuuuuuve it. I still have CD’s of The Kingston Trio and I had a two album set of Phil Ochs until I disposed of my stereo. On Pandera I have a Judy Collins radio station on call. I grew up listening to those melancholy songs of deep despair and whenever I listen to them now, I just feel a huge pang and ache of beautiful nostalgia. I can still hear the pain in all of it. Even John Denver, whose songs at the time were sometimes made fun of for being too cheery and optimistic, today sound as dark and depressing as the rest of them.
So I guess that makes me sort of a dork when it comes down to it. It’s my moment of geek, I guess you’d say. But it’s possibly my favorite genre of music even after all these year. So I might be a tad prejudiced in favor of the new film Inside Llewyn Davis, from the writing/directing team of Joel and Ethan Cohen and one of the finer films of the year.
Llewyn Davis, the title and central character, is a singer of that particular brand of music. But, in many ways, he’s also a victim of very bad timing. First, he’s a folk singer in New York in 1961, but he’s a solo act. The folk singing field is burgeoning, but only for groups like The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, Mary, performers with polished acts that are outwardly, rather than inwardly, focused.
Davis had a partner at one time and they recorded an album. But the partner killed himself and now Davis is singing stag, delivering haunting and heartfelt songs of despair that are more inwardly focused. He’s very good. There should be no reason he shouldn’t be able to succeed. But his kind of folk singing won’t break through for a year or two with the arrival of Bob Dylan, the success of Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and the rise of the singer songwriter. So while the album with his partner did well, his solo effort has failed miserably.
And when he makes his way to Chicago to see an influential manager (played by F. Murray Abraham who gives a remarkable performance in a very small role; his acting mainly consists of just sitting there with what seems to be blank looks on his face, while at the same time expressing more depth and emotion than more theatrical performers in larger roles), Davis is turned down because he is not commercial enough.
He’s also just a few years too soon for the movements that made folk so popular: the rise of the hippies; the Viet Nam war; and the Civil Rights moment. The songs and performances of Davis’s time were strongly apolitical after Pete Seeger was accused of being a Communist which led to the break up of the group The Weavers.
Davis is also a victim of bad circumstances. He has a crooked manager. He is accused by the wife of his best friend of being the father of her baby, even though he wore condoms and as far as she knows her husband could be the father, but still he feels forced to do anything to get money for an abortion (including making a bad business decision). He is haunted by the death of his partner, traumatized to the point where he can’t bring himself to take on another one. He is doing so badly, in fact, he has no winter coat and has to beg people for couches to sleep on at night. And he has this cat that…, well, you’ll have to see the movie for that.
This is not to say that Davis, the human being, is perfect. He’s incredibly self-absorbed and has difficulty feeling anyone else’s pain (which is both ironic and appropriate for the sort of internal kind of folk he sings). He looks down on everyone (I always felt the Cohen’s were a bit too misanthropic and ridiculed people in an often unkind way, but either I’ve gotten so used to their style, or they’ve taken the edge off, or it could be that Davis is so imperious that I just can’t look down on the other characters the way he does). And he always seems puzzled as to why he is not the center of the universe. Yet for me, I still felt he was more sinned against than sinning.
I’m not sure what has happened to casting directors this year. I’m not saying they’ve been falling down on the job before now. But films this year have shown some of the most imaginative and witty casting in some time. I first noticed this with Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (of course, his movies have always been brilliantly cast, no matter how good or bad they were), but it has continued on through such films as Nebraska, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks and now Inside Llewyn Davis.
The title role is inhabited by Oscar Isaac in what is termed a breakout performance. Relatively new to movies (his myriad of parts have been relatively small until now), he gives a very empathetic performance of a man who keeps struggling even when he’s no longer sure what he’s struggling for. John Goodman finally has a role that’s not a John Goodman part and he makes the most of a haughtier than Davis, drug addicted poet that imparts a very acute observation about the death of Davis’s partner (with a driver played by Garrett Hudland who is basically playing the same part he played in On the Road, and as weakly).
Justin Timberlake seems to be having fun satirizing himself a bit as Davis’ overly upbeat best friend whose voice is a bit reedier than the hero’s. Carey Mulligan, as the wife, gives more depth to a somewhat misogynistic role of a woman who thinks she’s been scorned, when she hasn’t (she breaks through the anger of the character and makes her part more real and sympathetic that it comes across at first). And Adam Driver has a very droll role as the third part of a trio singing a novelty song, providing some very funny background recitative (though perhaps a song that is a bit too harmonic to be as novelty as it is suppose to be).
And it’s all played out against a strong feel of period and place in the design of costumes, sets, dialog and overcast cinematography of never ending snow.
In the end, Inside Llewyn Davis may be little more than a character study and like other movies of the same vein made by the Cohen brothers (like A Serious Man), I’m not sure what it all adds up to. But also like A Serious Man, I’m not sure I care. I was just too riveted by Davis and his story to try to make it add up to anything. And whenever the characters broke into song, I was flung back into those early days of rapture. The film is as haunting and moving as the lieder that punctuate the action. What the Cohen brothers may not have achieved intellectually, they have more than made up for instinctually and emotionally.