Hopping from one couch to another in the pursuit of his dream Llewyn depends on the kindness of his friends, and occasionally strangers, but when we meet Llewyn it is clear that their generosity is wearing thin. But what is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Inside Llewyn Davis is that this is may actually be a continuing state in which his friends inhabit.
The film’s structure is a delicious mix of a linear story and the overarching suggestion that we, with Llewyn, are stuck in some sort of loop. This feeling we get adds to the air of despair, the sense of melancholy – melancholy which is writ large across Isaac’s face – but also the overwhelming hope that we are not seeing an end point when the film’s credits roll and the final song is sung. Whilst this is an end, it could be just another beginning.
The ennui that exudes from Llewyn is not simply born out his lack of success in the music business, although what he desires isn’t simply success but success on his terms, but the result of a series of unfortunate situations that weigh upon him. Part of a reasonably popular double act Llewyn is now a solo artist and his closet friends, that we see, represent more of an issue for Llewyn than they do a shoulder to lean on. His friends, Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) are also musicians and are partners both on and off the stage. Jean cheated on Jim with Llewyn though and is now pregnant, something she holds Llewyn responsible for. Sick of Llewyn bumming around and messing things up she treats him with contempt in the way she speaks to him, but beneath the scowl you do see a smile breaking through once or twice.
Jim is also not perhaps the best person for Llewyn to hang around with as he is a reminder of others success and Llewyn’s lack of it. Invited to a studio one day to play as a session musician Llewyn discovers upon his arrival that he is actually there to back Jim on a catchy, novelty sounding folk pop song entitled ‘Please Please Mr. Kennedy’. Providing accompaniment on the song is deep voiced singer named Al Cody (Adam Driver), who steals the scene with hilarious interjections.
Music is unsurprisingly a large part of the film and Inside Llewyn Davis has a number of great musical numbers, generally songs sung in full and live on set, which add greatly to the emotional arc and to the sense of the time and place. One also gets an incredible sense of the setting of the film through fine details in the costuming and set design, which ensures we are lost, wandering with Llewyn through the spaces in his life. The superb cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel is also full of rich textures and the attention to colour – with work from digital colourist and prior Delbonnel collaborator Peter Doyle – continues what has become a tradition in the Coen Brothers films of a sharp attention to this oft forgotten detail.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a quiet triumph of a film which may, like one of the many the folk songs featured, seem at first to be a somewhat simple tale told in a pleasing manner but as the film unravels there is so much more to Inside Llewyn Davis.