Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
I’ve never been a fan of the Coen Brothers, but something about “Inside Llewyn Davis” (the directing duo’s first since “True Grit” in 2010) impressed me. More than anything I’ve seen from them before, “Inside Llewyn Davis” uses the brothers’ cold, dry humor entirely to its advantage, without relying on it.
Even more impressively, it starts off with virtuosic star Oscar Isaac singing – yes, actually singing – a haunting and entrancing folk song in its entirety. “Inside Llewyn Davis” doesn’t commercialize for the mass audience that wants to hear the highlights – you’re going to hear the whole song, and you’re going to watch Oscar Isaac (or whoever is singing at the time) perform it…you don’t get the pleasure of watching some montage with music in the background. For “Inside Llewyn Davis,” music is never the background. And that’s why it’s so spectacular.
It looks like another bleak winter for starving artist and folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) in Greenwich Village. Crashing from couch to couch after each successive unsuccessful gig, Llewyn struggles to make it by as a solo artist after his group career sort of fell apart. As we follow him along his week, we see his struggles first-hand – in fact, he appears in every scene. He’ll bump into old friends Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), an aged jazz musician (John Goodman) who picks him up as he hitchhikes, and others. But that’s all it’s about…the ups and downs of a Greenwich Village folk singer. It’s so humdrum it’s refreshing.
One can’t review this film without mentioning the array of incredible folk music. It even turned my mom, who groaned when I told her what the movie was about, into a sort of folk fan. While purists may object that it’s not “folksy” enough, it serves as a remarkable re-entry of folk music into pop culture in a way that makes me interested in something I was never quite interested in before.
Isaac brings his deadpan arrogance to a role that wouldn’t exist without it. Isaac makes Llewyn hard to love sometimes, but that’s what makes him such a notable protagonist. Llewyn’s imperfections are exactly what make him the perfect character. And Isaac is as phenomenal at putting a face to a ton of Llewyn’s emotions as he is at singing and playing guitar. He deserves immense praise. In their smaller roles (because a drifter like Llewyn doesn’t see too many people for very long), Timberlake, Mulligan, Goodman, and the others don’t disappoint.
Perhaps the most distinctive part of the film is its ambiguity. The Coen script doesn’t wrap up all its loose ends…I mean, we leave Goodman passed out in a car on the side of the road and never see him again…but Llewyn’s life is the same way. We don’t have the benefit of knowing what happens because Llewyn doesn’t. In that way, the film stays honest and consistent. It’s not going to pander to please you – you’re going to have to deal with not knowing some things. It sure makes you sympathize with Llewyn.
I have mad respect for a movie that doesn’t give in to commercial temptations, one that stays committed to the task at hand. For “Inside Llewyn Davis,” that task is showcasing great folk music and following one starving artist through a week in his bleak New York City life. And that’s just what it does. You can try to watch it actively, but it’s better if you just let it sweep over you. Try it.