Inside Llewyn Davis is the name of the new solo album by folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) – but it’s not doing very well, and neither is Llewyn, for that matter. The former duo man is having trouble breaking through on his own in the ’60s NYC folk scene; he spends his days couch surfing between his Columbia intellectual friends on the Upper West Side, and his musician buddies in the Village – in particular the power-couple musical group Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). When he does get a gig, it’s a low-rewards affair at a local spot run by a sleazy owner.
A mishap with the Columbia professors’ cat starts Llewyn on an odyssey to re-examine his life as an “authentic” and dedicated artist in a world where the purity of art is muddled by everything from the mechanics of industry, to matters of the heart.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen, known for their quirky, soulful – and yes, folksy – brand of Americana tales (the list of films is by now too long). However, Llewyn Davis may be one of the most personal, heartfelt and ultimately timeless films the Coens have ever made; to paraphrase the the singer himself, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” Such is the truth of the movie itself.
On a technical front, the Coen Bros. manage to re-create 1960s New York City, Chicago (and stops along the way) with convincing accuracy and flourishes of cinematic beauty. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie, Dark Shadows) is in step with his signature (and gorgeous) brand of warm-glow dreamy vividness that only enhances themes about the creative process and headspace. As always, the Coens are masters at visual storytelling and humor, and Inside Llewyn Davis presents some of their most biting deadpan and ironic wit since Barton Fink - their other famous film about the realities of artistic creativity within “the industry.”
The mis-en-scene and shot construction is fantastic – but the rhythm and timing of the scenes are what demonstrate the masterful filmmaking finesse the Coens possess. It of course helps that they are also the writers of the script, which brilliantly uses one man’s portrait as a meditation on so many things involved with artistic pursuits, unflinching in its honesty but balanced by wit; and underneath it all, some naked exposure about the filmmakers themselves, and their possible anxieties about what life would be as a “solo act.”
Like any good Coen Bros. film, or song (or any good piece of art in general) it’s all possibly in there and yet none of it necessarily is; regardless, there is a heart and a mind to Llewyn’s odyssey, and the Coens provide the incentive (visually, conceptually and musically) to continue along each step. The film does drag near the second/third act divide – as the repetitive nature of Llewyn’s life starts to set in – but a nice narrative twist brings things around to a poignant (and thematically sound) conclusion. The soundtrack is fantastic, and at least one song is destined to live in your ears beyond the runtime of the movie.
Of course the Brothers get a major weight off their shoulders thanks to a great leading man in Oscar Isaac. Isaac is another Karl Urban-style chameleon character actor who has been a standout in so many things - Drive, Robin Hood, Sucker Punch, Bourne Legacy – but tends to be remembered more for the character than the actor behind it (that should change, now). So much of Inside Llewyn Davis hinges on the soulful emoting of the titular singer whenever he takes center stage – and in each number Isaac does more with just his voice control and facial expressions than a lot of actors do with an entire full-bodied performance. The rest of the time, Isaac fires off sarcastic lines with sharp comic timing and flashes deadpan expressions that manage to make you laugh, even in the heaviest of moments.
The supporting cast is a treasure-trove of cameo roles that riff on various aspects of the folk music industry, and in some cases, the actors themselves. Justin Timberlake shows up and does a great meta riff on himself as the likable and handsome “industry guy”; Girls star Adam Driver basically shows up to look and act weird as cowboy folk singer; Garrett Hedlund riffs on his own On the Road performance playing a Beat-era poet; and John Goodman chews scenery like none other. (Carey Mulligan, well, she’s just there, looking doe-eyed as usual…) Someone much more well-versed in folk music history could grasp all the Easter eggs and references in the film; I just know it’s packed with them.
With a good character, a cat and a few choice folk songs that will stick in your head long afterward, the Coens have created one of the more authentic portraits of the torment, joy and anxiety of an artist’s life. Inside Llewyn Davis is sad, funny, and sadly funny. If you’ve ever, for a second, envisioned a career pursuing your creative interests (or worse, if you’ve actually taken that plunge), then the film will touch something deep and important inside you. There is a recognition here, a truth. And it’s not necessarily a happy one.
Watch the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis below - Ad Block Must Be DISABLED to view trailer:
Inside Llewyn Davis is now in theaters. It is 105 minutes long and is Rated R for language including some sexual references.
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