Inside Llewyn Davis finally hit theaters in Baltimore, and though it isn’t the most uplifting film of the season, it certainly was worth the wait.
Set in the New York folk scene of 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis offers a glimpse into the life of a struggling folk singer at the dawn of an era when folk music hit its peak. Having recently read The Mayor of MacDougal Street, a memoir written by folksinger Dave Van Ronk on whom the Llewyn Davis character is based, I found myself trying to place events from the film within the larger scope of Davis’ life. The film captures but a small moment in the lives of one the most enduring fixtures of New York City’s folk scene. So to me, there was something a bit awkward about the telling of the story; the movie jumps right into Davis’ exhausting efforts to make ends meet as a performer, but doesn’t provide much of a narrative arc nor conclude with a real resolution for the down on his luck protagonist.
The real grit of the movie comes from a series of events, vignettes almost, in which Davis tries to further his career, or at least earn some much-needed income. And these acts provide enough interest to sustain the film despite the otherwise stark plot. A beautiful soundtrack and many pops of humor also provide necessary support to keep viewers engaged despite the meagerness of Davis’ reality.
Ultimately the vast majority of credit for this film’s success is owed to Oscar Isaac. His performance as Llewyn Davis is endearing, earnest, and made even more remarkable given that he performed all the music himself. Viewers constantly sympathize with the Davis character, a hardworking and patently talented folksinger waiting to get his due. Homeless, he sleeps on the couches of his more generous friends while hopping from gig to gig in search of a paycheck. Carrie Mulligan and Justin Timberlake portray Jean and Jim, a musician couple whose kindnesses Davis has thoroughly exhausted, especially once Jean learns she is pregnant with a child that just may belong to her struggling homeless friend. There isn’t much to like about Mulligan’s character in the film, as she constantly gripes about the sorry state of Davis’ life and her pregnant situation without once conceding her own role in the matter. But her performance is fine, and Timberlake is surprisingly satisfying as well. In the role of a folksinger, Timberlake has an opportunity to exercise his vocal talents in a genre new to most of his fans, while also representing a burgeoning folk style against which Davis’ more traditional sound is highly disadvantaged. John Goodman also passes through Davis’ life as Roland Turner, a man with whom Davis catches a ride while traveling to Chicago in search of musical success. His attitude toward Davis’ choice of music is indicative of the mainstream American attitude to folk music of the day and his performance is winning and hilarious as always.
Though there is no clear cut conclusion to the film and its ending is certainly far from happy, I found myself still deeply satisfied by the movie. It is a character study in passion, struggle, and strife. During his real life, Dave Van Ronk never earned the credit he was due, falling under the shadow of larger names like Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, and Janis Joplin. His role in the folk scene was instrumental and his struggle epitomizes that of so many other performers of the time. The Coen brothers spotlight one sliver of this struggle in a beautifully shot film set to a soundtrack that would make any traditional folk fan or modern day hipster swoon. Surprisingly funny and enhanced by a star-making performance from Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis beats the odds and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable movie-going experience.