Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest installment in the Coen Brother's canon, depicts a time and place that not even the most hardcore Dylan fans will recognize. Stripped of its nostaglia and mystique, Greenwich Village is an entirely different character, filled with cramped, cheap apartments, cluttered coffeehouses, and the litter of broken dreams. Most music biopics tell a fast and loose story a young man crooning tunes in the studio and then belting them out in front of screaming fans before succumbing to heroin. Llewyn Davis takes a different approach, using a minimalist style to convey the stark realities of the starving artist.
Filmmakers with lesser skill and experience could not convincingly pull off Llewyn Davis without stumbling over cliches, because the journey of a destitute musician rejecting the mainstream while searching for recognition is not new. Llewyn is the surviving member of a folk duet whose attempt to strike out on his own falls short of his expectations. He sleeps on friends' couches while scorning their artistic direction, creating a pervasive tension that permeates the film along with consistent bleakness. A perfect example of this is a scene in which Llewyn speaks to a friend, who is carrying a child that may or may not be his. He begs her for a place to leave his things, and within the same conversation, derides her ambitions as "careerist and kind of square". It's an interaction that locks the rest of the film on a trajectory that illuminates the result of his principles: poverty, isolation, and dwindling options.
Oscar Isaac delivers as Llewyn, and his nuanced performance is the highlight of the film. He nails the working-class Brooklyn accent, an homage to the first wave of folk musicians who hailed from low income, itinerant communities. His palpable agitation and desperation are alarmingly clear and devoid of self-pity. The music, however, shines as Llewyn's alter ego, the foil to his bitter exterior. While the melodies are pleasant and Isaac's vocals strong, the songs themselves lack the pop undertones that propelled folk music into the mainstream in the mid-to-late 60s. In an industry where the alternatives were Lawrence Welk and pop groups with traditional harmonies, Llewyn is in the rare position of being truly avant-garde, at the expense of his ability to have a more than hand-to-mouth existence.
The remainder of the cast, while capable, fails to coalesce around Isaac, contributing to a disjointed feeling indicitave of Llewyn's precariousness. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan are solid as Jim and Jean Berkey, a folk duo couple whose tastes are too bland for Llewyn. John Goodman, who has appeared in a number of Coen Brothers films, is the rambling backseat passenger Roland Turner, providing unsolicited commentary on Llewyn's road trip to Chicago. Goodman is always one to roll with the punches and is good for comic relief, but his part is less of a supporting role than an extended cameo.
Inside Llewyn Davis paints an intimate portrait of Dylan's fictional and metaphorical predecessor, shedding a long overdue spotlight on the origins of American folk. It's a subtle story full of harrowing tenderness, and another feather in the Coen Brothers' filmmaking cap. Opens December 6th.