Comedy Drama

Folksy Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

December 20, 2013Ben MK

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The Coens bring folk full circle

By Ben Mk

There's something about the simple, earnest sound of folk music that speaks to the very soul of the listener. Whether it's contemporary folk artists like Mumford & Sons or a folk legend like Bob Dylan, it's a sound as ageless as the art of music itself. Such is the world of the Coen Brothers' new film, Inside Llewyn Davis. As Oscar Isaac's character notes, "It was never new and it never gets old, and it's a folk song." And just like its musical backdrop, so too does Inside LLewyn Davis possess a timeless charm all its own. One look at the film and it's abundantly clear: this is a level of filmmaking that's born out of a deep love and reverence for the music.

Inside Llewyn Davis tells the tale of one tumultuous week in the life of its titular character (Oscar Isaac), a struggling musician in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961 -- before there was a Greenwich Village folk music scene to speak of. Like many of his fellow compatriots in the tight-knit folk community, his existence is a transient one. Spending his days chasing new gigs, his evenings playing them (usually at the Gaslight Café), and his time in between crashing on the couches of friends and acquaintances, there's precious little time left for meaningful relationships -- but plenty of time for complicated ones. Case in point: his relationship with the beautiful but angry Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan). One half of Jim and Jean, a popular folk duo -- and whose couch he often finds himself sleeping on -- she's just revealed her pregnancy to Llewyn. But with neither of them sure of whether he or Jim (Justin Timberlake) is the father, they must find a way to deal with the situation. Add to that the recent suicide of his singing partner and the constant challenges he faces in furthering his musical career, and Llewyn finds himself embarking on a journey of self-discovery, meeting all manner of interesting characters along the way.

The first thing that's sure to strike audiences about the film is the music. Produced by T Bone Burnett (whom most filmgoers might remember for his work on Crazy Heart) and Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons), not only will the soundtrack -- filled with many classic folk ballads -- stick in your head for days, but it's an integral part of the story and the storytelling approach. Viewers are drawn in right from the opening notes of Oscar Isaac's performance in the first scene (in fact, you'll almost want to clap along with the Gaslight's audience when the song finishes); and, throughout the film, the songs continually feed off of and into the emotional impact of the story. Much of this also owes to the caliber of the musical performances given by the actors. Isaac, in particular, deserves credit for carrying much of the musical load on his shoulders; for his is one of the most thoughtfully nuanced and delicately balanced musical turns in recent memory. The influence of the music on the storytelling approach is more subtle; As Burnett notes, the film itself can be considered to be structured like a folk song, beginning and ending in the same place, with the incidents along the way acting as verses of the song. It's a touch that may go unnoticed among some viewers, but it goes a long way in demonstrating the great care that has gone into making the film as authentic as possible.

That attention to detail and push for authenticity applies to the film's events and characters as well -- from Timberlake and Mulligan's Jim and Jean Berkey to jazzman Roland Turner (John Goodman) and music mogul Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Although Inside Llewyn Davis isn't a true story, it does draw much of its inspiration from real people and events -- chief among them, folk musician Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the Coen Brothers drew from to populate the world of their film. Even the title of the film is a passing reference to Van Ronk's 1963 album, Inside Dave Van Ronk. Make no mistake, however -- even though the film is grounded in reality, the Coens have applied their trademark wit -- as they brought to bear in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Fargo -- in spades. From the many humorous interactions between Llewyn and the film's oddball characters to his quest to return a dear friend's cat, there's no shortage of scenes to put a grin on viewers' faces and add lift to the film's sails.

The Bottom Line

Inside Llewyn Davis is that rare gem of a film -- the kind that doesn't put on any airs, sneaking up on you like a musician whose humble demeanor belies the immense talent within, only to completely and utterly blow you away with its sheer magnificence. It has that elusive combination of heart, humor and authenticity, remaining true to the source material but doing so with a distinctive charm that only the Coen Brothers can muster. If you're a fan of folk music, you'll absolutely adore this film; and if you're not a fan of folk, then this film will absolutely convert you -- guaranteed. [★★★★½]

* Reviewer's note: Throughout the month of December, TIFF has been running a retrospective on the Coen Brothers' repertoire of films, entitled "Joel & Ethan Coen: Tall Tales". The retrospective concludes on December 20th, with a presentation of the Coens' 2010 film, True Grit.

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