“A wealthy feast of foot stomping, philosophical and eclectic beats and lyrics”
Given their intricate understanding of comic horror and cult characters, the Coen Brothers‘ most endearing side to their films have always been the heavy-hearted protagonist, sailing through a time and world they can’t seem to grasp. Llewyn Davis is a man who fits perfectly into that very category. More in relation to the likes of Barton Fink and A Serious Man, we are treated to the story of an artist’s nostalgic highs and inevitable lows, coupled with an array of intricate period settings and yearning folk songs.
Set in New York, 1961, folk singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) relies on the help of friends and his newly pregnant one-nighter Jean (played by Carey Mulligan) in his recovery from the death of his singing partner and finding his artistic mojo again. But his pursuit of a bigger and better recording deal becomes a series of mishaps that looks to fatefully question his lifestyle.
Even if its main character looms like a black cloud amongst those around him, it’s an immediately watchable story about what happens when a once great artist suddenly loses their drive and appeal. With its sincere soundtrack and unfortunate moments almost a speciality in the Coens’ work, it’s the air of melancholy and desperately clawing at forgotten times that fills each frame throughout and is masterfully deceived.
But what of our hero Llewyn, brilliantly played by Oscar Isaac with his heavy eyelids and worn shoulders, as though carrying a depressive life aswell as his guitar, he captures this toned frustration eloquently. Never having a personal blueprint for the future, he drifts at every opportunity he can muster in order to set his musical spark off once more. Taking beatings, insults and flack has become like water off a duck’s back to the point you can easily sense his downfall – but it’s played brilliantly. Those around him are no help, but are well formed characters nonetheless. Carey Mulligan plays Jean, desperately wanting to escape from the downtrodden life and who can fill a swear jar in no time, but still with an underlying affection for our folk singer no doubt. Building on her singing promise in Shame, she’s the most fitting personality to add to Llewyn’s downward spiral.
As with its place in music history, the soundtrack is tightly woven into the folk scene effortlessly. Either on stage or cruising down a highway in a car, even the most dismissive folk music fan would be swept up in its intrinsic importance to the story. A wealthy feast of foot stomping, philosophical and eclectic beats and lyrics, the songs both float and pierce the soul as Llewyn goes on his journey. Just like the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? had a soundtrack worthy of any CD collection, as does this with its melancholy ever-increasing and perfectly chosen. Further demonstrating not only does the Coens’ direction endear but also their use of music.
But the film’s overriding air of missed opportunities and life paths become all the more important. Almost like this being the Coens’ version of Groundhog Day, suburban winter with a dry witted hero that’s engaging to an audience and looking for answers as Bill Murray does in that very movie. Even with its parallels to Greek literature in the story of Ulysses, notably in the name of our anti-heroes runaway cat, a form of literature the Coens’ are all too familiar with ever since O Brother. But that shouldn’t sway you into different expectations, it’s set pieces and dialogue are as every bit in the realms of the Coen brothers most notable and at no point does the whole thing become too existential and preachy. With just like their most serious and notable films, having a hint of an open book end just enough to let you ponder.
It’s wistful, endearing, tragic and enlightening all at once. It may be a story about characters yearning for glory days, but for the Coens’, it’s another timely piece to add to their glorious collection.