It’s an incredibly difficult feat for a film to accurately capture another part of history. Regardless of location, costumes, thematic concurrence, films that aim to depict a certain, specific age often feel manufactured, and a little too self-aware. It takes an incredibly good film to pass.
Fortunate then, that Inside Llewyn Davis is an incredibly good film. Helmed with poise and precision by the Coen Brothers, the 2013 film, which stars Oscar Isaac as the titular character, is a bittersweet ode to the New York folk movement of the 60s.
‘Everything you touch turns to shit, you’re like King Midas’s idiot brother’ berates Jean, played with aggressive tenacity by a superb Carey Mulligan. Damning though her declaration is, she’s not far from the truth. Davis is selfish, cynical and rude, and the only reason he avoids all-out repellence as a character is the dough-eyed childishness with which Isaac plays him. He’s a singer-songwriter trying to make it in New York, but doing anything but. He sofa-hops, argues and fucks his away around the city in conjunction with each career setback, though the sporadic vulnerability Isaac plays him with gives you the feeling that this is just a man kicking back at a world which has already booted him to the floor. In a breakout role, the actor is magnetic in his portrayal of the beaten musician.
However, to return to the opening notion, what really makes Inside Llewyn Davis such a fantastic piece of cinema is its sense of place. New York City is grey and bitter, the clubs are cramped and smoky, whilst the hyperbolic romanticism of the Swinging 60s is replaced with a more sombre, contemplative mood. Many of the characters are based on real personnel that navigated the Greenwich Village scene of that era – Davis is a loose inspiration of the musician Dave Van Ronk, whist Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean were indeed a real American folk duo. With its tone and commitment to atmospheric realism, at no point does the film feel overtly fictional.
And then you have the songs. With a music department spearheaded by the legendary T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons), Inside Llewyn Davis plays host to a selection of original folk tracks, each of which is as strong as the other. Hang Me, Oh Hang Me is as barren as it is poignant, whilst Fare Thee Well, a duet between Mumford and Isaac, is a gorgeous recognition of acoustic music of the era. The jewel in the crown, however, is Please Mr Kennedy, the pillar of the film’s best, and funniest, scene. Featuring Isaac, Timberlake and a one-man-sound-effects-system in Adam Driver, the track is admiration and satire simultaneously. Without giving too much away, it’s the musicians’ response to the Cold War Space Race of the mid-60s.
Inside Llewyn Davis is classic Coens and delivered by a terrific ensemble. The aforementioned Isaac, Mulligan and Timberlake are all excellent in their respective roles, whilst John Goodman, Garret Hedlund, Max Casella and F. Murray Abraham also pop up in supporting roles with playful aplomb. The film is as joyous as it is sincere, managing to find time to be achingly funny alongside its subdued and sober representation of the musical ladder.
It’s brilliantly acted and meticulously crafted, delivering an audience to a time in danger of being forgotten. With sweeping cinematography and a gorgeous score, it’s an experience that is entirely sensory – a must-watch for fans of music, be it folk or anything else.
Words by Niall Flynn