Inside Llewyn Davis follows one week in 1961 in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). Davis is an out-of-luck folk singer who sleeps on friends’ couches, has a manager who doesn’t actually do much promoting, and struggles by with gigs at a local bar, where he can’t however step out of the shadow of his two friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). He is haunted by his past of being part of a double-act that enjoyed some success until his parter (Marcus Mumford) committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington bridge, and he has completely lost his way in life as well as creatively. Whether he has always been unsociable and easily irritated is never explained.
Llewyn Davis is, as Jean tells him in the film, “an asshole”. He doesn’t care for much apart from his music, and he doesn’t seem to believe much in that either, despite having a lot of talent. He takes a liking to a cat for a while, but eventually abandons her. He gets Jean pregnant and then asks her husband Jim for money so he can pay for the abortion, all while, of course, not telling him who the woman is. In short, Davis is not, by any measure, a good man, and yet you can’t help but empathise with him. That’s a tribute to the ingenuity of the Coen brothers who have written and directed a melancholic masterpiece with Inside Llewyn Davis.
The film is, surprisingly, devoid of a traditional soundtrack: the only time you hear music is when characters are actually singing. The soundtrack is beautiful, and to the credit of all the actors, they actually sing themselves – and, importantly, can sing. That’s less surprising for Justin Timberlake, but all the more surprising for Adam Driver, who plays wannabe cowboy Al Cody, and is probably best known for playing Adam on Girls. The underlying silence intensifies the claustrophobia that hangs over every dialogue: it is obvious throughout the entire film that all the characters are stuck and won’t be able to grow before the end. The tragedy and irony lies in Llewyn Davis being the only one to recognise his impuissance, with everyone around him blaming their own powerlessness on him.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterful black comedy that will make you sadder every time you laugh at one of the absurd moments Davis encounters. Indeed, the laughter is a release for the crushing reality of the film, and even the film’s funniest moment, Llewyn’s, Jim’s and Al’s recording of the incredibly silly “Please, Mr Kennedy” song, is overshadowed by the fact that Llewyn plans on using his commission to pay for Jim’s wife’s abortion.
Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis wonderfully, and captures so much sorrow in his portrayal and voice he steals every scene, including the ones opposite John Goodman. To see Carey Mulligan play an angry, self-obsessed woman is truly refreshing and definitely an asset to her filmography. Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver remain, unfortunately, underused but portray their respective characters with ease. In the end, however, all the actors are almost secondary to the atmosphere Inside Llewyn Davis creates – underlined by the fact that the film is essentially plotless and rather a snapshot of these lives.
Although “Llewyn” is consistently, and irritatingly, pronounced incorrectly by everyone, you can forgive them because there’s an incredibly funny rant about Welsh rarebit between Llewyn and Roland Turner (John Goodman) to make up for it.
In summary, at every one of its 104 minutes, the film is a character study that breaks your heart and never tries to put the pieces back together. When you leave the cinema, you’ll carry with you a sense of unease and hopelessness that makes Inside Llewyn Davis one of those rare gems that won’t let go of you for a long time.