By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 26, 2013 at 1:15PM
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is as pure as the driven snow, much like the title character played by gifted actor/musician Oscar Isaac in a breakout role that should earn awards attention. (He played supporting parts in "Sucker Punch" and "Drive," as Carey Mulligan's husband.) The movie is about an artist, for better or worse, who can't be anything but himself. The Cannes Grand Prix winner played Telluride and the New York Film Festival September 28, followed by a September 29 Town Hall benefit concert.
The biggest challenge for the Coen brothers was finding an actor/musician who could carry the movie and sing its roster of challenging folks songs, holding the screen and not sending viewers toward the exits. Isaac was their guy. "He's more than a credible musician," said Ethan Coen at the Telluride tribute to the Coens and frequent music supervisor T-Bone Burnett. "He could sing whole songs. You have to want to watch him as well as his musical performance. It was crazy for us to find someone. But we found Oscar."
"The musician shows us who they are while they are singing," added Joel Coen. "He has to reveal himself as an actor and reveal himself as a musician. How to find those things in one person? When Oscar walked in the door we were so excited."
The Coens wanted to shoot the film like a documentary. So Isaac had to learn 8 to 10 songs and be able to sing them all the way through, live on camera, in one take. "It was like a tightrope without a net and without a rope," said Burnett. "It's the story of every musician's life." He says the filmmakers gave up flexibility with their demand to shoot live in only a few takes. Isaac was able to keep the tempo, amazingly, so they were able to cut between takes after all.
In the film, Llewyn Davis writes and soulfully performs old and new songs and plays the guitar beautifully--a propulsive style called Travis picking that Isaac had to master--and has earned the respect of his fellow folk musicians (Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver). And yet he's not a likable fellow, partly because he's trying to make his way without his lost partner, depressed and angry that he's not making a living and that many of his peers have mastered the knack of pleasing audiences and making money, while he sleeps on other people's lumpy sofas and can't seem to get ahead. Nothing is going Davis's way. He had a fling with a singer (Mulligan) who now loathes him and wants to get rid of his baby. He shuts the locked door to a friend's apartment just as their orange cat bolts down the hall, and he has to carry the creature around without losing it again. He seems better able to care for the cat than he does himself.
Loosely inspired by New York-born Dave Von Ronk's life in the Village in the early 60s, when he was the big cheese before the folk movement took off with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is serious Coens, often funny, but much like the dark "Barton Fink" (starring John Turturro), it's about the serious artist who can't compromise to make art and commerce meet half-way. For that reason I suspect that artists of all persuasions will identify with Davis, and feel his pain. The climactic scene where he plays a song for a club/promoter (F. Murray Abraham) says it all.
For "Inside LLewyn Davis," "a success story would not appeal to us," said Ethan Coen. "The guy who wasn't Bob Dylan was more interesting." Phil Ochs and Dylan were from the midwest, he pointed out. "The great folk scene of the 50s and 60s before Dylan showed up," said Joel. "There was a dividing line, part of the fascination was what did Bob Dylan walk into? We all know where it went from there. You can't do anything like this without Dylan looming large."