INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS: Oscar Isaac on the Coen Brothers



It’s a simple twist of fate that the Coen Brothers’ take on the Greenwich Village ‘60s folk scene is finally arriving in theaters nationwide. Check one of the trailers below, after the interview.


 Despite looking back masterfully to the American West of the late 1800s (True Grit), the deep South of the 1930s (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the cracking-wise Depression-era ‘20s (The Hudsucker Proxy) and the Prohibition (Miller’s Crossing) or the literary Hollywood of the ‘40s (Barton Fink), the directing/writing Coen Brothers (otherwise known as Ethan and Joel) could hardly be thought of as period film makers. There’s too much monkey business between the auteur brothers; too much of their own dedication to their quick talking, observational language and Coen-ese atmospheres where looking away from the screen occurs at the viewer’s peril. These guys aren’t genre-specific. They’re Coen-centric.

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis Justin Timberlake as Jim

 Inside Llewyn Davis, then, is a rarity amongst the Coens’ works. The film is richly dedicated to much of the precise spirit of Greenwich Village’s early ‘60s folk scene and all of its nuances (smoky coffeehouses, earnest emotionalism) at the cusp of a revolution: the entrance of Bob Dylan, and the explosion his crackling prose and sinewy vocal delivery would bring to a group of players and listeners rapt with their own brand of protest and tumult. Despite present-day stars like Justin Timberlake (above, with title star Oscar Isaac) and Carey Mulligan (below) acting with erstwhile tenderness and sorority (or disdain and self-centeredness, with its title character modeled ever-so-slightly after folk great Dave Van Ronk), each actor seems to exist solely between the strum of an acoustic guitar’s strings. The movie is magical, sparse, and enveloping with each minute drawing you in to that Ferlinghetti-esque McDougal Street of the mind.


 With that inscription comes a soundtrack, of course, produced by Coen Bros’ stalwart T Bone Burnett, whose immersion into all things potent and folksy (be it the urban blues, the gospel lament, the Americana-lite, the Spanish Civil War holdouts or the wayfaring Celts, the seafaring Scots and vice versa) not only made for one helluva album. Burnett’s and the Coens’ accuracy of intent and song spilled over into a one-time-only concert—celebratory elongated concerto is maybe a better definition—of Inside Llewyn Davis’ music subtitled “Another Day, Another Time.” Played by the scene’s originators (Joan Baez, Bob Neuwirth), admirers (Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Jack White, Gillian Welch, Avett Brothers) and filmic executors like the film’s co-producer Marcus Mumford and its stars such as Isaac and Adam Driver, the show wasn’t sepia-toned (as the film occasionally and gloriously was) but rather red hot and blood lusty.

COEN FILM Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis

 “I was incredibly humiliated,” says Isaac, the day after the Town Hall concert in Manhattan. The quiet, humble actor with a deep background as a singer/songwriter plays Davis like a proud, edgy, roustabout. In realty, Isaac is so insular, that he seems put off by his own singing and playing Davis songs the night previous. “I’m still trying to get over it. Playing on stage? Sometimes, it feels like bending over and spreading your cheeks for everyone. Terrifying, yes, but it’s also an exhilarating rush and incredible high, but a very bare sensation.”


An exhilarating rush and a bare sensation is what Isaac, a Julliard acting school grad, felt about the Coens’ script when he auditioned for the role, one that would be his first lead after notable supporting gigs in The Bourne Legacy, Drive and W. “I loved absolutely everything about their script,” says Isaac. “Its sparseness, its humor, the darkness of it, the complexity, all the emotional punches that are part of the songs they used. That was not evident when reading the script, but as a musician, I knew the structure and it was exquisite. I loved the circular aspect of the whole thing. The script itself has the feel of a folk song, with a verse, a chorus, a verse and a chorus, where, at the end, you have the same verse again.”

 Remarkably, as Isaac relives that circular ideal, you can see Inside Llewyn Davis’ first scene in a smoky Village coffeehouse with a hung-over Davis looking at the stage, then again in the last scene, with a certain simple twist of fate.

 “They’re really something,” he says, acknowledging the wonder of the Coens’ art and their focus on a moment in history. “That’s their aesthetic; that they work from an instinctual, rather than an intellectual place.”

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