Inside Llewyn Davis Review

inside-llewyn-davis-oscar-isaac
RATING:
(4 STARS)

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen Brothers‘s most emotional movie. After a half-decade turning out great film after great film every 12 months or so, Joel and Ethan take a couple years and come back with something that’s as enigmatic as Barton Fink, as well-crafted as No Country for Old Men, and yes, as affecting as anything they’ve ever done. It goes to some extraordinarily melancholy places, yet it bears every Coen trademark you can think of—wild characters, irreverent humor, cruel twists of fate. There’s simply not another film like it this year, and few—if any, frankly—are as good.

The film derives its title from the debut solo album of its folk-singing main character. In 1960s Grenwich Village, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is struggling to make a name for himself among other talented singers as well as those who are willing to sell out to get ahead. Make no mistake, Davis can sing, but in the wake of his partner’s suicide, he’s learning how hard a successful solo folk career can be.

That’s a very surface-level take on what’s going on in this film, and it’s interesting enough in its own right, but the Coens have oh so much more on their minds. We meet Llewyn toward the end of a set at the pub he frequents, and he’s singing a song in which he laments that death by hanging doesn’t sound so bad but for the long rest that awaits him afterward. That ought to give you an idea of the man’s state of mind. He’s having a real crisis of confidence when it comes to his music and his life more generally. He’s broke. He might have knocked up his friend’s wife (Carey Mulligan). His manager is a thief. He misses his partner desperately.

And the Coens set the film up in such a way that we immediately empathize with Llewyn—sad singer who seems to have suffered an awful case of mistaken identity—even if some of his choices are objectively terrible. That facade erodes over 90 minutes and reveals something of a prick, but with Oscar Isaac truly living in the role, it’s never black and white with Llewyn. He’s the most fascinating character of this movie year by no small margin.

As you might expect from a film like this, the music is outstanding (“Please Mr. Kennedy” is a very obvious highlight). And being that it’s Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing is razor-sharp. It’s remarkable how naturally they blend their comedic sensibilities with this film’s excruciatingly tragic elements. Bruno Delbonnel, meanwhile, stands in for Roger Deakins (the Coens’s usual cinematographer) and produces some spectacular images.

Though Inside Llewyn Davis is of a specific time and place, there’s a universality to its themes that will resonate with me for a long time. Inside Llewyn Davis (and inside Inside Llewyn Davis) is a heart that beats to express himself through his art. His single-minded determination sometimes combines with a sort of good-hearted thoughtlessness that seems forever destined to make his life more difficult. It’s an inherently sad story, and that’s before you even reach Davis’s soul—one that’s broken into a thousand pieces over his partner’s death.

Inside Llewyn Davis is the kind of film that might not leave a huge impact on you immediately, but it will most certainly burrow its way into your brain and stay there. And maybe you’re like me and it will reproduce like a virus and consume every waking thought. I don’t know. But no new film in a long time offered me so much to chew on, so much to laugh at, and so much raw, painful emotion simultaneously. It’s one for the ages.

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3 Responses to Inside Llewyn Davis Review

  1. Keith February 8, 2014 at 11:41 am

    Big fan of this movie. It’s funny how I responded to it. I remember walking out of the theater feeling a little disappointed. But over time my appreciation for the film has grown and grown. I’ve come to appreciate what the Coens were going for and the many themese they are playing with.

    Reply
  2. Dan O'Neill December 28, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    Somehow, nothing in this movie happens. And yet, somehow, we’re totally and utterly invested in the movie’s happenings that it makes it one of the best character-studies I’ve seen in a long while. Good review John.

    Reply
    • John Gilpatrick December 30, 2013 at 11:33 am

      Awesome, thanks Dan. Glad to know others are responding to it the way I did. It’s a tricky little film, but I simply adored it.

      Reply

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