Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
In an Instagram world of greys and browns, with filters over the lenses and strikingly accurate period pieces, this snapshot of 1961 is beautifully poignant, showing a world that was yet to transition between post-war austerity and the technicolour of the 1960s. Folk music is yet to explode, Bob Dylan is yet to be famous and Woodstock is but a mere fantasy away. The music Davis sings is just waiting to be discovered, but for record companies, there is no money to be earned from such music. No matter how beautiful or heartbreaking or sad it might be, his songs are not the music on the radio which are happy and fun distractions from the bleak world outside. And the world outside is disturbingly bleak here. At moments it feels post-apocalyptic, in the long and dark winter in which people flee from the cold of the streets and our protagonist is too poor to afford a coat. This is a nostalgic world, but not with the rose-tinted hue of bygone summers, but with the pragmatic hardship of "we had it hard in my day". Davis is a down-and-out artist in the true meaning of the phrase; he struggles, he makes the wrong choices and his life is but a cycle of mishap after mishap.
The film plays out like a folk album too. With a good album's-worth of songs performed in full, it almost feels like we're watching a concept album in progress. When you read of singers saying that an album signifies a certain period of their life, this is exactly what they mean; Llewyn Davis' life has led to these songs and so we see the songs amongst the life from whence they came. The camera lingers long on these performances, drinking in the performance as the emotions of the scenes we have witnessed pour out through the songs. This is the film Dylan or Mitchell could only dream of making; if this were a true story, it would be the perfect folk biopic.
I struggle with a film about music. For me, A Crazy Heart and Walk The Line were a chore, regardless of the quality of the performances. Inside Llewyn Davis is not the same; this is a clever piece of cinema with high aspirations. There's more to the narrative than meets the eye, not only with its structure but also its cultural reference points, which are broader than they might initially seem. Its episodic series of encounters, from Jim and Jean to the guests at dinner parties, are distinctive and memorable and there are some great supporting performances here. Goodman has a great role, but it is Timberlake and Mulligan who shine in their parts. Mulligan has rarely been finer than Llewyn's angry ex-lover and Timberlake really shows how versatile a performer he actually is. But the most striking presence alongside the titular character is the series of cats he encounters; from the beginning of the film, Llewyn is left accidentally in charge of cats with whom he forms the only real connections he makes. For a character who has made so many mistakes and lost almost everything, it's important that we see his ability to love, and it's through his perceived responsibility toward the cats that we really get a sense of who he could be. We see glimpses of how good a person he is, how good a musician he could be, the life he could have led if he had taken different choices, but we don't see him suffer a moment of regret, he just carries on, suffers, takes the blows and performs his music wherever he can.
Like all of the Coens' more serious films, there are moments of comedy that seep through too. There were moments in which I wondered if the Coens were fans of folk music at all, but it's clear that they have reverence toward it, even if they may mock its more austere moments of solemnity. For while the film sees humour in even the darkest of places, Llewyn himself does not. He is a tortured soul, a modern-day Job, an Odysseus desperate to get home; we don't see him smile once, nor do we know if his fate is to be same as his previous co-singer. This is the world that created folk, not the world that folk (as we know it) existed in - we don't know if Llewyn made it out the other side alive. And for a film that covers but a mere snapshot of his life, we come out of it ourselves feeling like we've lived this whole struggle with him. I hope the future is bright for Llewyn, I really do. And if they made another film about this character, I would be there in a heartbeat to see it.