WHAT is that one elusive quality that makes one artist successful while his peers struggle to make it big? Talent? Self-belief? Or maybe just sheer luck? It’s an age-old question — impossible to answer — and hangs over this latest movie by the Coen brothers — fêted as their best work in years — like the gloomy, grey landscapes of its setting.
Llewyn Davis (Isaac) is a down-at-heel struggling folk singer who plays the Greenwich Village clubs of New York for pennies and dosses on people’s sofas. His singing partner has recently killed himself by jumping off a bridge.
The year is 1961, the very same year that Bob Dylan arrived in the city and was playing those same kind of folk clubs. But while it only took a year for Dylan to get his first recording contract, it never quite happens for our anti-hero. The story is a fictional one, but is based loosely on the memoir of Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street.
Davis is a tortured artist, the type whose self-loathing underlies his personality and pops up at opportune moments to spoil any chances of a leg-up he might get.
A well-to-do couple who like his music offer him a room in their home, but it’s not long before he’s fallen out of favour with them by embarrassing them in front of their friends.
A lover and fellow folk singer, Jean (Carey Mulligan) asks him for money for an abortion, believing he is the father of her unborn child. He turns to his friend Jim (Timberlake) to borrow the money... and Jim just happens to be her husband.
Is it any wonder that he won’t make it, despite his talent? It’s a story of tortured genius that has not been nominated for any Oscars, despite being greeted as a triumph by critics. But somehow, in the context of the film, that seems appropriate to the subject matter.
Film: Inside Llewyn Davis
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman