For more than two years, I have been anticipating the new Joel and Ethan Coen movie loosely based on the life of folksinger David Van Ronk, Inside Llewyn Davis. Although the Coen Brothers movie may not live up to my expectations of another great integration of story, humor, and music as in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Inside Llewyn Davis is another very good film from the Coen Brothers.
Inside Llewyn Davis follows Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, as a struggling folksinger in 1961 Greenwich Village. This review will not give away too much of the story, but the film follows Davis moving around trying to find a couch to sleep on while he struggles to make a living with his music. The movie opens with Davis giving a moving performance of the traditional folk song “Hang Me Oh Hang Me.” In that scene, the actor and musician Isaac immediately conveys the musical soul of Davis.
But as in several other Coen Brothers movies, we see that the world is not quite fair. Others do not recognize Davis’s talents, while we see other more polished and less soulful groups on the rise. But Davis is not an innocent, as he often contributes to his own troubles.
In addition to Isaac, the film features a number of excellent performances by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, and Coen Brothers film regular John Goodman. The music is pretty good too, but not O Brother good even though producer T Bone Burnett was involved in both movies. Perhaps one thing that prevented the music from taking off for me was that the film seemed to want me to distinguish between “bad” folk music and “good” folk music, even as I wanted to enjoy the “bad” songs too, like the ridiculous but fun “Please Mr. Kennedy.”
Although critics are giving the movie great reviews as show by Rotten Tomatoes 93% rating, I also understand why the Rotten Tomatoes audience rating is almost 20 points lower at only 75%. At times, the lead character’s faults seem to override his charm or the usual Coen Brothers sense of humor (even if that humor does usually carry doses of cynicism and fatalism). Also, one might find that the film plays like a series of vignettes rather than a plot-driven story.
If I were to rate this film among the Coen Brothers catalog, it would still fit among my top ten Coen Brothers films, although maybe it would be around ninth. On the other hand, even if Inside Llewyn Davis is not in league with movies like Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007) that blew me away at the first viewing, I suspect that I may grow to love the movie more on repeated viewings, as has happened with me for films like A Serious Man (2009) and Miller’s Crossing (1990).
In other words, I look forward to seeing Inside Llewyn Davis again. And I also plan to pick up folksinger David Van Ronk’s memoir that inspired the film, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Meanwhile, I suggest you check out Inside Llewyn Davis for yourself.
How would you rank Inside Llewyn Davis among the Coen Brothers catalog? Leave your two cents in the comments.
(Some related Chimesfreedom posts.)