Nostalgia, for me, has always been about gaps. We long for a kind of negative space that can never materialize and likely never existed the way we want it to. This is precisely what Inside Llewyn Davis is about. The new film from Joel and Ethan Coen is a nostalgic hat tipping to the heyday of folk music in 1960s Greenwich Village and the wealth of talent that fell through the cracks. Inspired by the real-life folksinger Dave Van Ronk, Llewyn Davis takes a thoughtful, and often wry, look at the compromises made on behalf of both artistic integrity and basic survival.
In the title role, Oscar Isaac is equally strong in silence, speech, and the many heartbreaking live performances throughout the film. Isaac creates a portrait of a ‘starving artist’ whose suffering is perhaps more self-imposed than he would admit, evoking our frustration and compassion. The angry and exasperated Jean, marking another sensitive supporting performance by Carey Mulligan, embodies these mismatched emotions. A surprisingly period-appropriate Justin Timberlake, whose appearance in the film is somewhat jarring at first, plays Jean’s boyfriend, but we stop expecting him to bring sexy back to the ‘60s almost immediately. His integration into V-neck polyester and the film’s vintage ambience is relatively seamless. Several other supporting performances (notably John Goodman as the compelling Roland Turner) help to weave together the film’s looser narrative and winter setting with the more still and more intimate moments of the live acoustic numbers.
Characteristically, this latest feature from the Coen duo is rife with mineable symbolism (ie. a tabby cat literally named Ulysses) and some temporal puzzles that will leave fans burning after reading…or so to speak. Ends are left untied, love un-pursued, opportunities missed, and generic conventions subverted along the way. Keep your eyes peeled for flashes of road movie, rom-com and an homage to an indie music scene before YouTube. That being said, the Coen brothers could do well to resist Ctrl-C-ing the anachronistic cowboy/daddy figure whose only function is to deliver a well-deserved ass kicking to the boy-man protagonist.
Without spoiling the fun, the first and final scenes of Llewyn Davis may throw a bit of a pickle into our understanding of the film’s timeline. However, as the credits rolled I was left with the thought that the answer to this riddle is probably inconsequential. Instead, the point seems to be that the entertainment business is like a dryer with a never-ending load. Only not, because a dryer collects all the crap in a disposable heap of fluff at the bottom and the good stuff (your clothes) gets to ride on a toasty static-free ferris wheel. This stands in contrast to the music industry where, regardless of talent or dedication, most people just wander around aimlessly searching for recognition that never comes. Llewyn Davis makes a gesture of appreciation to those in the lint filter and reminds us that we’re all just tumbling around in the same place anyway.
By Julia Huggins