By: Joey Magidson (★★★★)
Going into my initial screening of Inside Llewyn Davis back at the New York Film Festival a few months ago, I had no reason to expect that I’d even like it. As many of you know, I’m not the biggest Coen Brothers fan, so I’m not predisposed to enjoy what Joel Coen and Ethan Coen tend to unleash on audiences. Lo and behold though, I saw a near masterpiece, my second four star review worthy film of the year at the time, and my favorite film of the year/at NYFF, until of course Her closed out the fest. Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautiful, funny, sad, and ultimately haunting look at a struggling artist, amazingly captured in one of the performances of the year by Oscar Isaac. He’s perfect in the role, well deserving of every bit of acclaim that he’s been given so far in 2013. The supporting cast, led by Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and Coens regular John Goodman, are charming and well up to the task of supporting Isaac, since this is clearly his show, through and through. The music is phenomenal, comprising the best soundtrack of the year so far, but what’s so tremendous about it is how integral it is the film itself. This isn’t a movie that has music in it, this is very much a musical movie, just not in the more traditional sense of the word. However you want to categorize it, one thing is for certain though, this is a flick destined to show up in the top three spots on my year end best of the year list…it’s that good.
The film basically follows a week in the life of our protagonist, folk music artist Llewyn Davis (Isaac). He’s the type of musician that drifts from couch to couch, using up the kindness of his friends until they’re all pissed at him at once. This particular week, Llewyn is low on money, in possession of a friend’s cat (which factors into the movie more than you’d expect), on the bad side of his friend/former flame Jean (Mulligan), who’s the significant other/singing partner of his best friend Jim (Timberlake). Before the week is out, he’ll have worn out his welcome in Greenwich Village, headed out on a road trip with a pair of odd characters (Goodman and Garrett Hedlund), and gotten an audience with the type of person (F. Murray Abraham) who could change his fortunes in the industry. What ultimately happens is best left for you to discover, but it’s very much the journey that matters here…
In a just and fair world, Oscar Isaac would be assured of a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars and would be in heavy contention to win the Academy Award. He’s phenomenal here, giving not just a career best performance, but one of the best of the year in total. Isaac’s singing is high quality, not that it comes as a surprise (his song in last year’s flick 10 Years was a highlight for me), but the moments when he bares his soul through music are often on the verge of being heartbreaking. Llewyn may be a hard guy to like, but Isaac makes you love him. The top supporting performances are given by John Goodman and Carey Mulligan, though both are very much in the background of Isaac. Goodman is amusing in his few moments during the aforementioned car trip, while Mulligan is very funny playing the sort of woman scorned that you never want to have in your life. Another small performance worth mentioning is the one given by Stark Sands as a dull soldier with a career going in a direction that Llewyn can only dream of. Sands is charming in a low-key way, but his character’s mere presence says a lot about Llewyn’s situation. Justin Timberlake is very solid too, with the scene of him, Isaac, and Adam Driver singing “Please Mr. Kennedy” a delight. Aside from Timberlake and Driver, you have F. Murray Abraham solid in one scene, along with Garrett Hedlund essentially turning in a silent performance. The singing by Mulligan, Sands, and Timberlake are top-notch too, which is basically essential in a movie like this one. The other players here include Alex Karpovsky, Max Casella, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, and others, but this film 100% belongs to Isaac.
The Brothers Coen usually put out films that I find too cynical for my taste, but here somehow they’ve taken a similar formula to something I’m more conflicted about like A Serious Man and turned it into something beautiful. I think some credit surely goes to the music in the flick, which is partially the result of working with T. Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford, but Joel and Ethan also just deliver a great looking film too, not just one that sounds great. Working with DP Bruno Delbonnel this time around, this is one of the best looking movies of 2013. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully explain why, but somehow they just fire on all cylinders here and finally have me a believer in their work.
Awards wise, this film is headed towards Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nominations at the Oscars for sure, with Best Director, Best Actor for Isaac, Best Supporting Actor for Goodman, and Best Supporting Actress for Mulligan definitely in play, to different degrees. Sadly, “Please Mr. Kennedy” apparently isn’t eligible for Best Original Song, or else it would have assuredly been nominated. Personally, I prefer the also ineligible rendition of “Fare Thee Well”, but both are truly amazing songs.
Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the best films of the year, plain and simple. It’s the type of movie you just get lost in. For those of you who love prior works by the Coen Brothers, you should get even more excited than usual. For the few of you out there like me who don’t normally dig on them, this could very well be the one to convert you. It sure did convert me. In the end, this is a near masterpiece and one of the crowning achievements in cinema this year. Trust me, you simply can not miss this one.
Even great directors aren’t immune to having a film that disappoint and for the Coen Bros. Inside Llewyn Davis is one of those movies. It’s not that Inside Llewyn Davis is a bad film, as many might try to ascertain from the star rating, but more that it doesn’t play very well despite some fantastic elements.
Set in 1961, we meet Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) a down on his luck musician in the process of getting his ass kicked by an old man after singing a heart wrenching rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” It’s a pretty good set up to prepare the audience for all of the highs and lows they’ll experience as Llewyn moves from place to place and never quite succeeding in anything in his life. His ex-girlfreind takes every opportunity to berate him despite still having him around, he’s stuck in a dead-end record deal, and he’s lost his friend’s cat. However, he’s still trying to make it and travels to Chicago on the off-chance he can manage to do more of what he loves.
Oscar Isaac is phenomenal as the titular Llewyn Davis. The character has an interesting trajectory and Isaac has to do a lot of acting under a specific set of conditions as he just excels. There’s a scene where he sings to a music manager (played by F. Murray Abraham) and just the amount of nuance he brings to his expressions, while singing no less, is remarkable. Speaking of singing, the music in this movie is great. T-Bone Burnett and the Coens spun that O, Brother Where Art Thou? album into Grammy gold and should find themselves on the receiving end of awards for the album of this movie. They manage to find the perfect songs not just for the story, but the voices of their actors. Also worth noting is the cinematography, with its dreamlike diffuse light, yet crisp framing. There are so many shots that are subtly great, the hallway where Jean and Jim live in particular, and the scenes set in the nightclub are wonderfully lit.
The biggest issue with the screenplay is that it just doesn’t go anywhere interesting with the characters. Even in a character study, the characters in the story have sort of growth or change. Inside Llewyn Davis felt like nothing more than “A Series of Unfortunate Events: Folk Music Edition” in its presentation of the tough life Davis leads. Watching a movie about an unfortunate character isn’t inherently bad, but Inside Llewyn Davis just can’t manage to find interesting ways to parlay this continual disappointment into a better film. I won’t spoil the plot too much for you but the storytelling device that the Coens used to bring this movie to life just reinforced that the story didn’t really go anywhere. In telling the story this way, the movie introduces us to some interesting supporting characters but never explores any of them. This especially hurts Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman, who have some interesting roles that never get their due plot wise. Justin Timberlake should also have some bones to pick with the Coens as his character gets an extremely short shrift by the screenplay.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the type of movie that’s not hard to appreciate but extremely difficult to like because of the issues with the script. Better to just listen to the soundtrack and think about the performance of Oscar Isaac, rather than the whole film.