God Save The Coen Brothers. Seriously.
Where their last musicalish film about music, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a celebration of music as a saving grace, their latest Inside Llewyn Davis is just as exquisitely musical but most certainly is not. And it’s all the better for it.
Granted, it’s a completely different kind of trip, from a goofy band of stooges fatefully escaping Death through the sweltering Depression era South to a penniless, jacketless troubadour solely braving the blustery winter snowscapes of New York and Chicago just before Bob Dylan becomes the most important person with a guitar ever.
However, the comparison is fitting as both films are so rooted in their particular American musical traditions (expertly curated by T Bone Burnett) and each use the music as relief.
But, where O Brother’s The Soggy Bottom Boys croon their way out of predicaments by singing “Man of Constant Sorrow“, actual man of constant sorrow Llewyn Davis is worn down from singing his life and only ever having a handful of smoking beatniks recognize the depth of his pain.
As the titular Davis, actor Oscar Isaac (who co-incidentally played co-star Carey Mulligan’s ex-con husband in that other good movie with good music) pretty movingly sings a handful of folk songs over the course of the film that make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. He convincingly plays Davis as a remarkably talented and sensitive but painfully selfish misanthrope as terrified of success as he is of failure.
He’s a damaged mess, which is his bluesy badge of authenticity. The only person with a greater claim to “authenticity” is John Goodman’s caustic and physically broken jazz man.
Some critics have called the film (and the character) cruel, as this poor bastard is set to self-destruct before he can ever realize his full potential, “The Man Who Would Be Dylan”. This (literal) snot-nosed punk with the sharp witted tongue and wild curls of Lenny Bruce, Davis’ odyssey is tragicomic because he compulsively sets all his bridges on fire partly because the fates don’t really give him anything but matchbooks.
It’s a woeful tale to be sure, but not nearly as bleak as reviews or trailers make it seem. It is a devastating folk song AS film. And like a song, the music and delivery work as a soothing balm to the punch of the words. Moments like the opening credits, a spectacularly goofy number with (a perfectly cast) Justin Timberlake and Davis’ devastating audition for the guy who figures as Bob Dylan’s future manager are the most genuinely breathtaking moments (musical or otherwise) I’ve had watching a movie all year.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie version of the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, if Dylan was walking in the street alone in the middle of winter and hadn’t become some kind of American popular music Messiah but realized he was going to have to pawn his guitar and get a job at Woolworth’s. That is, freewheelin’ until you just can’t.