Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

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Most figures in the entertainment industry will tell you that the road to success is laden with bumps and potholes, but hard work and persistence will prevail. What they’ll purposefully neglect to mention are the sinkholes that swallow up so many aspiring artists, even those whose talent is evident. Who better then to tell a story of successive failures than Joel and Ethan Coen, whose filmography contains a wealth of sad sack individuals in existential crisis? Llewyn Davis is their newest misanthrope, and the story of his travails fits squarely into their wheelhouse. Dark yet soulful, specific to a time and place yet ambiguous, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coens’ finer films, supported by a melancholy turn from Oscar Isaac and a stellar soundtrack.

Set in Greenwich Village, New York in 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis finds its beleaguered title character (Oscar Isaac) playing his upteenth performance at Gaslight Cafe. Davis is an folk musician who has experienced modest success and acclaim in the past, but is at present beset by adversities. His singing/songwriting partner recently committed suicide, he is short on money and finds himself hopping couches and on top of everything else, his ex-girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant. It’s no wonder the film opens with him plucking his guitar and crooning a song entitled “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Despite all of these problems in his life, Llewyn isn’t the easiest bloke to sympathize with. He’s socially abrasive, stubborn in his pursuits, and brings many of his issues upon himself. Like some of the other Coens’ fare, Inside Llewyn Davis is less driven by plot and rather molded by situations and circumstance. Llewyn accidentally ends up with a friend’s tabby cat, and in an effort to scrounge up the money to pay for Jean’s planned abortion, he takes work he typically admonishes, including a studio session with her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake). The film makes a major detour as Llewyn schlepps his way to Chicago with a loud mouthed jazz musician (John Goodman). This whole sequence feels somewhat out of place with the rest of the film as it shifts to a road movie mentality, but its clear that the Coens intent is more metaphorical than literal.

As has been their wont, the Coens add in a healthy amount of ambiguity to Inside Llewyn Davis, especially with regards to the film’s somewhat abrupt conclusion. Their cast of characters are as diverse and oddball as one can expect, which is naturally a credit to their signature writing style. Above all is Oscar Isaac, whose weathered visage plays perfectly into Llewyn’s headstrong personality, and whose remarkable voice would have fit sublimely into the folk scene of the early 60’s. He may rarely be likable, but when Llewyn delivers another tune from his solo record, one can’t help but sink down in the depths of his despair. Carey Mulligan is also quietly affecting as Jean, for though she viciously berates Llewyn for even existing, its easy to tell that she still cares for him. Their relationship through the course of the film changes little, but Jean and Llewyn provide great foils for one another. One particular conversation in a cafe between the two beautifully illustrates the core conflict of the film: Is fulfillment possible when living such a scattered life, or does settling down merit any long term happiness either? He’s been dealt a few bad hands, yes, but Llewyn lives for his art, and at the moment, that passion is killing him. The rest of the cast is pretty good as well, with Coen regular John Goodman delightfully finding his potty mouth groove again, and even Justin Timberlake acquitting himself admirably in the few scenes he appears in.

For a film so down in the dumps, the Coens have gone for an image of New York that is at once grounded yet somewhat mystified as well. The brothers are so good at finding the balance between extremes and here director of photography Bruno Delbonnel puts his hazy lens to the task. Nearly monochrome in nature, the photography doesn’t really glorify New York but it does blanket an otherwise gritty atmosphere with a cozy look. Perhaps this look for the film is in service of the excellent music, as it figures heavily into the narrative. Recorded live on set, there isn’t a single song that feels out of place in the film, and provides a sense of warmth and occasional humor to balance out the film’s chillier passages. Llewyn is mostly dismissive of most of the other acts in the film, though pleasant as they may sound, they fail to illuminate anything about the performers. There’s no doubt, however, that every time he takes the stage, Llewyn, despite all of his burdens, is laying his weary soul to bare for anyone willing to listen.

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~ by romancinema on December 9, 2013.

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