I am such a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen. Dating back to 1984 with their first film “Blood Simple”, the brothers have put together an incredible filmography, etching out a prominent name for themselves in the process. Not only that, they have developed into some of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Armed with a sharp wit and an undeniable style, the Coens have taken their special brand of cinema to a variety of places. Their latest is the early 1960s New York folk music scene. The film is “Inside Llewyn Davis” and while it may not be the best Coen brothers movie, it is undeniably theirs.
I was so glad to hear that Oscar Isaac had gotten the lead role. This criminally underrated actor has amazing acting chops yet rarely gets big leading parts. Here he plays Llewyn Davis, a down-on-his-luck musician struggling to get by in 1961 New York City. Llewyn’s singing partner has committed suicide, his solo album isn’t selling, and he is flat broke. He spends his nights on the couches of different acquaintances and his days trying to get enough gigs to get by until his big break comes.
There really isn’t a lot of plot in “Inside Llewyn Davis”. We basically spend a few days with Llewyn witnessing his routine and seeing the nature of his struggles. It doesn’t take long to learn that Llewyn is his own worst enemy. He’s constantly driving people away whether it’s fellow musicians, family, hospitable friends, or even girlfriends. Llewyn is selfish, uncompromising, and irresponsible yet he never casts an examining light on himself. He’s not a character who will draw the audience’s affection. Much like the other people in his life, we can’t get that close to him even though we feel sympathy towards him. Llewyn is an extremely talented musician. He just needs to get himself out of the way.
This is a colder Coen brothers picture that clearly has no desire to be hopeful or uplifting. Perhaps that why I had trouble embracing the film at first. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying a movie has to be uplifting or hopeful. I don’t believe that at all. But watching Llewyn continually self-destruct for the entire film had me wishing for a glimmer of hope. There are a few scenes of the Coen’s signature dark humor that occasionally lighten things up, but mostly this is a pointed, unflinching character drama that captivated me while still holding me at arms length.
As with all Coen brothers films this one is loaded with an assortment of interesting characters and captivating faces. We get quick but great roles for John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham. Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good as a fellow musician who is married to Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean. She’s played by Carey Mulligan who is very good in the role. But her character is one of the few Coen creations that could have been handled better. She’s abrasive and profane to the point of being distracting. There is a subtle attempt at humor with Jean and her harsh personality but she disappears before we are allowed to see the compassionate side we are teased with. But this is Oscar Isaac’s show and he gives an Oscar-worthy performance. He brilliantly flexes his acting and singing muscles in what I hope is some career-launching work.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” has all the other traits you would expect from Joel and Ethan Coen. There is beautiful cinematography. The sense of time and place is impeccable. The music is unforgettable and the film features arguably the best soundtrack of the year. And it’s certainly a smart film featuring great vision and unquestionable craftsmanship. But for me it doesn’t quite rank up there with the Coen’s best pictures. That said, this is another time capsule experience brought to us by two of the best in the business, and anytime they make a movie it’s something special. Better yet, it has stuck with me and different themes from the film keep coming to mind. That a sign of something good.