Oscar Isaac in a scene from "Inside Llewyn Davis," a performance that earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
Writers-directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is a snapshot of a place and time: Greenwich Village and the burgeoning folk music scene of the early 1960s, moments before a young, fire-breathing Bob Dylan changed everything.
It’s a period piece rich with references and subtle nods, enough pause-and-rewind moments to sate the appetite of cinema junkies who feast over such things. But there’s very little quirk and Coen sensibility to it all. And their humor plays dark, much like their 2009 Job-like test of faith A Serious Man.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a haunting film about an immensely talented and equally unlikable folk singer-guitarist and his personal struggles. Played by Oscar Isaac in a brilliant breakthrough performance, Davis is intelligent, condescending, and scarcely troubled by his swath of emotional destruction and resentment involving friends and family. Once a promising act as part of a folk music duo, his partner’s suicide has left him bitter, frustrated, and poor. Davis spends most of his life bouncing from couch to couch, playing at a Greenwich Village folk coffee house, and hoping for the big break that never comes. He would be an easy character to despise were it not for moments of humanity and tenderness when his soul is laid bare onscreen.
The Llewyn Davis character is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a legendary folk musician whose friendship with Dylan helped inspire the latter. And while there are some autobiographical similarities to Van Ronk and Davis, their stories are quite dissimilar. Van Ronk went on to become the Mayor of MacDougal Street. Davis, as Isaac said, was anything but.
Besides Isaac, the film stars Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake as fellow folk singers, and John Goodman as a jazz guitarist and heroin addict named Roland Turner, who is even more grating than Davis.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens Friday in Toledo. The Blade recently spoke with Isaac about the film, working with the Coens,
Q: Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that offers little empathy for the title character. And by the end, the only appropriate response to the Coen Brothers pile-on of misfortune to Llewyn is to laugh at the absurdity of it all, just as the character does.
A: That’s exactly right; that’s what they do so well. They examine existence in such a specific way where the tragic and the absurd are constantly intermeshing with each other like that brackish water. I think that’s what makes it so effective and so powerful, at least for me, that it’s really moving. It’s someone not feeling sorry for themselves at the end but [who] gets the cosmic joke.
Q: Yet, despite Llewyn’s foibles of self-destruction and horrible life choices, we root for him as the unlikable protagonist.
A: I think that’s because you see that he actually has something real that he wants to say, he has something that is actually authentic and generous that he wants to say, and that there is a rich inner-life in there. There’s a Charles Bukowski poem that really resonated with me called “Bluebird,” where he says “there’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out but I’m too tough for him. I say, stay in there, I’m not going to let anybody see [you].” And that was a refrain for me. His little bluebird is when he plays those songs. When he plays his songs you really see who he is and there’s a real tenderness and a vulnerability there.
Q: In a recent interview, the Coens said that until they saw you, they had no one to play the part of Llewyn and the film was in jeopardy of not being made. What was your initial reaction when you learned you landed the part?
A: First off, just lucky for me that they couldn’t find anybody. I guess it means that the competition wasn’t too stiff, so that’s good. I freaked out when I found out. It was life changing. It was the pinnacle and more than I ever could have possibly imagined. There’s really nothing better than I could have imagined.
Q: With “Please Mr. Kennedy” nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song, any chance you would perform the song at the Oscars if it’s also nominated?
A: Naw, it doesn’t fall under their thing. It’s just the nature of it. It’s strange because folk music is all about rearranging traditional music again, so that leaves out a whole genre of music, but that’s how it is. They’ve got their rules.
Q: How much research did you do into Dave Van Ronk and how much of his life did you incorporate into your performance?
A: I read his memoirs, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and I read Chronicles, which is Dylan’s memoirs, when he talks about Van Ronk, and I listened and played his music. So whatever would infuse from that was great. Certain things about his life and being a Merchant Marine and being from the boroughs and some of his surliness [that were part of the fictional character], but Llewyen is not Van Ronk. Van Ronk was considered the Mayor of MacDougal Street and Llewyn is not the mayor of anything.
Q: Talk about the experience of working with the Coens and what’s the most important thing you took away from them?
A: They create a community of artists. Nobody has real ownership over a good idea, so you never even know who thought up what because we’re all just throwing out to the table and trying to build this thing together. It was the most relaxed, funny, comfortable set I’ve ever been on, and efficient. More than anything I take away from this, more than any award or box-office thing, is my friendship with those guys. It wasn’t just about the job, it was about their whole universe and the way they see the world and art and family and all those things. They let me in to all of that and that was the most enriching thing I could have asked for.
Q: Inside Llewyn Davis is a haunting film that stays with you. In several ways, this is perhaps the most un-Coen-like film they’ve done yet.
A: I agree. There’s a lot of history in every frame. I think the Coens don’t necessarily show you what life looks like but they definitely try to show you what life feels like. Particularly with this movie, you’re seeing what life looks like through the eyes of this guy and it’s grim and yet also absurd and beautiful as well.
Q: John Goodman is a force onscreen as the jazz guitarist who hates folk music. What was that like for you as an actor to watch him take over the film with this powerful, crazy performance?
A: Yeah, he’s ferocious and burns at an incredibly hot temperature, both figuratively and literally. He’s just so incredible in such a difficult role. Usually as an actor you get something back from others in a scene, but he was doing that straight to the back of my head. So that was all just self-generated. And he’s just very kind and gentle, and yet has this deep reservoir of anger and rage, which is really impressive. That was a very surreal moment when I was looking into the rearview mirror and saw John Goodman sitting back there and ahead of me the Coen Brothers.
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