A film review by Craig J. Koban February 14, 2014 


2013, R, 105 mins.


Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis  /  Carey Mulligan as Jean Berkey  /  Justin Timberlake as Jim Berkey  /  John Goodman as Roland Turner  /  Ethan Phillips as Mitch  /  Robin Bartlett as Lillian  /  Max Casella as Pappi  /  Jerry Grayson as Mel  /  Jeanine Serralles as Joy  /  Adam Driver as Al Cody  /  Stark Sands as Troy Nelson  /  Alex Karpovsky as Marty Green  /  Garrett Hedlund as Johnny Five

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers’ INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is dark, dreary, and deeply melancholic portrait of a most gifted loser.  Set mostly during one week in the life of a folk singer that’s trying to eek out a living in 1961 – just before Bob Dylan would burst on to the scene and change the musical landscape forever – the film maintains Joel and Ethan Coen's predilection towards offbeat, colorful, but hauntingly damaged personas.  Their protagonist in their new film – if we can even call him that – is innately blessed with musical skills and an angelic voice, which makes the experience of witnessing him stumble and fail through life all the more heartbreaking (granted, with some Coen-esque sprinkles of sardonic humor through in).  If anything, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is a stirring evocation of its bygone era and a warts-and-all portrait of a man self-imploding.  

It’s the 1961 folk-music scene in Greenwich Village where we meet Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) for the first time, a musician that certainly has the chops to get ahead in his career, but, alas, through both circumstances that are both beyond and in his control, he can’t.  He has no money, no permanent place of residence, and he drifts from one friend’s home to another that are gracious enough to give him shelter…that is until they have had enough of him.  Llewyn’s main foible is that he's a spiteful SOB at the best of times, which segregates him from forming meaningful relationships with just about everyone around him.  Yet, dang it, he’s such a soulful, pure, and superbly talented singer, as displayed in the film’s beautifully rendered opening scene, where Llewyn performs at the smoky and packed Gaslight Café.  If he truly applied himself…he could achieve greatness in the music scene. 

Here’s the problem, though: the folk music scene is dying a slow death, which means that time is of the essence for the hapless Llewyn.  Tries as he does, he attempts to make nice with his friends, like the musically inclined Jean (Carey Mulligan), who is now pregnant and despises Llewyn, which is complicated by the fact that the baby could be his.  Llewyn’s feelings towards Jean are crushed even further when he sees her on-stage with her new partner, Jim (Justin Timberlake), which makes him wistful for the days when he too had a partner…who unfortunately committed suicide and left Llewyn a struggling solo artist.  He certainly has reasons for being guarded and depressed, but he callously and unwarrantedly unleashes his own inner pain on others. 



There is one hopeful light at the end of the tunnel for Llewyn: an upcoming audition at Chicago’s Gate Horn nightclub.  He decides to hitch a ride out of New York with Roland Turner (Coen Brother alumni John Goodman) and his sidekick, Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund), which starts innocuously enough and then segues to one extremely strange twist after another.  Eventually, Llewyn finds himself alone on the road again, but he does indeed make it to Chicago and to his nightclub destination.  With everything in his life of the proverbial line, he performs for the steely-eyed Bud Grossman (a perpetually poker faced F. Murray Abraham) in hopes of finally catching the break that he desperately needs.  In pure Coen Brothers fashion, the outcome here takes a very unexpected detour. 

For a film with such a downbeat and sour tone, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is, paradoxically, one the most beautifully shot films of 2013.  The Coens – with the assistance of Bruno Delbonnel’s captivatingly lush and moody cinematography – thrillingly recreate the interior and exterior worlds that Llewyn finds himself populating.  Everything here – from the ominously dark, yet inviting cafes that the title character performs in, to the frosty winter streets, to the hellishly narrow hallways of dilapidated apartment buildings – creates a rich and tactile texture to the film that makes you immediately feel like you are a part of the time period.  The film has been criticized by some for lacking the Coens’ usual visual flare, but, to the contrary, their low-key direction here compliments many of the film’s musical sequences, during which time they use static shots of the performers and the music and singing do most of the talking.  Too much aesthetic hubris would have suffocated the effect of these scenes. 

The real standout of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is Oscar Isaac’s performance as the perpetually doomed singer.  Llewyn is a difficult character to flesh out and inhabit: In the wrong actor’s hands he would have been intolerably dislikeable within a few short minutes.  What Isaac does here is kind of extraordinary in the sense that he makes this character both a figure of instant spite while, at the same time, relaying him as a deeply flawed, emotionally vulnerable, and immeasurably talented man that deserves our sympathy and understanding as well.  There’s no denying that Llewyn is toxically anti-social and finds hostile ways of disconnecting himself from everyone around him in the world.  Yet, the more time you spend with him on screen the more easily you can relate to his plight.  Llewyn harbors deep rooted pains and is still beleaguered by loss in his life, which makes moving forward for him difficult.  Regrettably, he never finds a way of using his superlative gifts to escape his pains and the pain he inflicts on others.  Isaac makes this sad sack of a human being endlessly compelling throughout the film. 

Yet, as I left the screening of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS I found myself dealing with the notion that this film’s morosely sad evocation of self-destruction will not be everyone’s idea of a good time at the movies.  That, and the Coens’ narrative takes a bit too long to germinate into something truly meaningful; one vignette moves into the next, mostly with fluidity, but oftentimes with a meandering randomness that stymies the forward momentum of the film.  I felt that the film only really gained a true pulse of interest half way through with the introduction of Goodman’s heroin addicted and aging jazzman, and Goodman’s splendidly mannered vocal delivery and odd eccentricities makes you long for the memorable Coen Brothers movie characters of old.  INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS could have used much more of a Goodman-like/larger than life presence in it. 

Lastly, this film is not in the upper pantheon of the truly masterful Coen Brothers works.  That much is certain.  However, it contains a lead performance of such raw and damaged emotional veracity by Isaac (whom, by the way, does his own singing in the film, which was remarkably recorded live for most sequences) and the Coens certainly recreate the impeccable look and feel of the early 60’s folk music scene as only so few directors could.  The film is also spot-on for relaying how one artistically blessed performer often stares career and life failure in the face when he’s unwilling to compromise on any level.  Similarly, the Coens never make compromises here for the sake of placating audience expectations.  They see Llewyn’s lackluster journey through life – beset with soul-crushing letdowns – without holding anything back.  True to their form, they never do anything by-the-books here.

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