REVIEW: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

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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.

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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.

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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.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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32 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

    • Thanks! This is a movie that has grown on me more since I left the theater a week ago. There really is a ton going on. It deals with everything from music to mortality. And the Coens are just so clever! Remember “Llewyn is the cat”.

  1. Outstanding work Keith. I, a relative newcomer to the Coen filmography (the only other 2 I have seen of theirs I do believe are No Country and of course, The Big Lebowski), was absolutely in love with every shot of this film. My word choice is intentional. I loved the way this film was shot. I did not like the lead at all, but of course, such is the whole point. I really didn’t find much comedy in this at all, and am not sure how that stacks up to the rest of their work. It’s a bad reference, but it’s certainly less funny than Lebowski. All the same, what you said about their ability to capture this time and this place being impeccable. . . that’s exactly what I’m about to note in my own review! 😉

    • Glad you liked it too and please, check out more of their work. Raising Arizona, Fargo, Blood Simple, so many great films.

      This one has a few laughs but it isn’t as openly funny as many of their films. I think that was a good decision. Being too funny would undermine several of the themes flowing through the film. I’m really anxious to see this again now that I’ve had a chance to think in it.

    • You’re a fellow Coen brothers guy so I think you’ll really appreciate what this film is doing. It has their fingerprints all over the film. Hope you get to see it soon. I’m anxious to hear your take on it.

      • Yup! A fellow Coen guy, indeed. I really can’t see myself disliking this at all. They’re one of very few directors that you just know you’re going to enjoy.

      • They are such great craftsman both visually and narratively. They have a sharp wit and such eyes for the camera. And their style is undeniable. Even their lesser films find ways to impress.

  2. Good review. I’ve had a similar reaction to this film – it doesn’t grab you immediately, rather holding you at an arm’s length, but it leaves a strong impression.

    • Exactly. It’s not a film you instantly warm up too. But over time I’ve began to realize more of what the Coen brothers were doing and the different themes they are playing with. Loved it.

      Thanks for the comments!

  3. Ahah, somehow I knew we’d be on opposite side on this one. I think I’d swap the grade you gave for ‘Her’ w/ this one if I were to write a review of it. I do love Isaac in this though, and the cinematography is gorgeous, but narrative, I think I just don’t really *get* The Coens. I’m in the minority on this though, and that is all right by me 🙂

    • There ya go! Nothing wrong with that Ruth. In many ways the Coens are an acquired taste. This film is a bit different from the other films. It’s gloomy and sad. But I love the number of themes that run throughout it. And remember “Llewyn is the cat”!

  4. Nice review and I agree with your assessment about Llewyn Davis. He’s a bit like Larry from A Serious Man, but less sympathetic. Isaac’s performance is incredible and I think it’s the best I’ve seen all year.

  5. Good review Keith. The Coens have now reached that point in their careers where they can do what it is that they want, whenever they want, and nobody would hold any objections against them whatsoever. They just practically do everything great and it’s a wonder to still see, even so late in their games.

    • The are certainly impeccable filmmakers. What I like is that they’ve never deviated from their own style. Even though these films may be different, you can see the Coen brothers stamp on each one of their pictures.

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  8. Great review Keith, you hit the nail on the head that Davis just needs to get himself out of the way. He had the musical talent to be a huge star. I enjoyed this movie a lot and the songs are fantastic.

      • I just watched it today and it’s stuck with me too. I want to read a lot of reviews on it for insight and learn more on the themes. I’ll watch it again when it’s out on DVD, plus check out the soundtrack. Great movie, I thought my local theatre dropped it but it’s back (along with Gravity).

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