Review: 'Inside Llewyn Davis' an Expected Hit from the Coen Brothers
by Jeremy Kirk
December 20, 2013
It's nearly impossible to argue against the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, as the best filmmakers working in America today, and the case can be and has been made that they are the greatest today period. Every time they take a swing at intriguing stories, fascinating characters, and breathtaking cinematic execution, they hit it clearly out of the park. This is especially the case since the brothers hit their storytelling stride a few years ago adapting Cormac McCarthy. Inside Llewyn Davis, their latest, may not rank next to No Country for Old Men or True Grit, another adaptation the brothers nailed. Yet, it's a testament to the care and precision Joel and Ethan Coen strive for - and achieve - at nearly every turn.
The eponymous Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac is a head-strong yet unfortunate folk singer trying to make it on his own as a solo artist in the cold Greenwich Village of 1961. Davis has seen a modicum of success in his life, the result of a partnership that has since ended for, at first, unexplained reasons. The film reflects on a specific week in this fictional artist's life, a week that will either end with him finding the success he so desperately aspires to or with him giving up the dream to, as he calls it, "just exist."
Or absolutely nothing could change for Llewyn Davis in the course of this week. That's the beauty of Joel and Ethan Coen and their eccentric form of storytelling. There are always surprises in a Coen Brothers screenplay, unexpected changes in course and structure decisions that ultimately make their scripts as quirky as the characters who fill them. Inside Llewyn Davis brings both from the absolute beginning of the film to the absolute end, and though the film rarely feels like it finds its momentum, it's never possible to guess the next direction it's going to take.
Over the course of this week, Davis couch-surfs between friends, acquaintances, and even a few people who don't like him particularly much, and the circular journey he seems to be taking screams of Greek tragedy, the internal struggles of an artist who can't seem to get out of his own way.
The film's momentum, or lack thereof, could be seen as a problem. It certainly keeps Inside Llewyn Davis from ever being energetic or captivating from a script point. This can't be anything but intentional. The Coens inject the tedious, cold humdrum of the character's life into every page. Hallways of apartments look the same. A cat of a friend who runs out as Davis is leaving one morning seems to look like every other cat in New York City. When Davis takes it upon himself to look after the pet until he can return it to the owners, the sadness and heartache, subtle as both may be here, are undeniable.
Davis, tragic character as he is, is not a bad person. He makes mistakes, but that's just part of the sincerity the Coens write into him. The eccentric characters surrounding him take the man, and his attitude, with varying degrees of acceptance He's simply an artist, incredibly gifted at guitar and song. The passion he has for his art doesn't necessarily make him refuse to change with the times, it just has him worried about them. And times, they are a-changin'.
Yet again, the Coen Brothers stun with the way they recreate that era; the busy streets and sidewalks that run through Davis' world, vintage cars dotting those streets, and the impactful colors and tones of this bitter season the Coens and first-time collaborating cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel pull off. Whether it's snowy streets or smokey bars, Inside Llewyn Davis envelops us in its world, drawing us further into its character and his story. It's a cold film meant for cold weather. Be sure to bring a coat.
Davis' world is also developed through some of the best music put to film in recent memory. T-Bone Burnett finds and has the film's musical artists recreate a solid set of traditional folk songs, Isaac and Marcus Mumford covering "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)" a definite highlight. The song plays a few times throughout the course of the film, each time performed a little differently and each time drawing a different meaning or emotion from the film. Burnett and the Coen's work marrying music to picture here is utterly brilliant.
It certainly doesn't hurt that Oscar Isaac hits every note of every song he performs here perfectly, the beauty and sadness of the character practically spilling out with every song. Not only that, Isaac dominates the role. With somber eyes and a sullen, cracked delivery of every line, Isaac captures the frustration of his character. It's not often fictional characters match an actor so well that it's impossible seeing anyone else in the role, but Isaac's work here absolutely does that. If any director(s) can make that happen, it's the Coen Brothers.
And, with any Coen Brothers cast, the supporting players in Inside Llewyn Davis are spectacular. Carey Mulligan plays Jean, a friend/lover/enemy/it's incredibly complicated to Davis, and the actress seems in heaven spewing all manner of hateful venom at the man. Justin Timberlake - shocker here - triple threats his way through the role of Jean's musician husband, Jim. Acting, singing, and guitar playing are the effortless skills he brings to this character. Late in the film, Davis goes on a road trip with a pair of strangers played by the always awesome John Goodman and Garret Hedlund, who does very well with his character's chain-smoking reserve.
It's everything you've come to expect from the masterclass Coen Brothers. With the recent trend of music documentaries about forgotten artists, Inside Llewyn Davis may not tell a story that's incredibly new, not the general idea of it, anyway. Yet the Coen Brothers capture a time and place and give us the front-row seat films like Searching for Sugar Man and A Band Called Death couldn't possibly have pulled off. A tale as old as time can still draw its audience in if pulled off with exceptional skill, and with filmmakers like the Coen Brothers behind it, Inside Llewyn Davis is a poignant tale that will have you reflecting back on it, and revisiting those songs, for days to come.
Jeremy's Rating: 9 out of 10
Follow Jeremy on Twitter - @JeremyKKirk