Inside Llewyn DavisReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/11/13 05:50:45
"Inside Llewyn Davis", early on, shapes up to be the story of a house cat who escapes into a world of adventure that the title character can only see as frustration. That's not the direction that Joel & Ethan Coen wind up going most of the time, but it still isn't a bad way to look at it- there's a lot of wandering, human and feline, that does have more purpose than you might have expected by the end.Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer in 1961 New York, formerly part of a duo but now on his own. That's not going so hot; not only does he get punched out after a set for things he'd said the night before, but he doesn't have a place of his own to go after that, winding up in the spare bedroom of Professor Mitch Gorfein (Ethan Phillips) - and accidentally locking himself and the Gorfeins' cat out when he leaves. His next stop is Jean (Carey Mulligan), who is very angry to possibly be carrying his baby rather than that of her fantastically sweet boyfriend and musical partner Jim (Justin Timberlake). From there, it's a long few days of cat-chasing, couch-surfing, and driving to Chicago, starting to wonder if this is the life he wants.
Even though this film is set up to poke at Llewyn Davis's brain and see what makes him tick at a potentially pivotal moment in his life, he is not necessarily a problem to be solved here. In fact, while it's not necessarily obvious at most points of the story, there's an interesting commitment to apparently getting nowhere to the way the Coens plot this: It's not just that the script breaks down into chapters where the characters don't overlap despite one setting another up directly; it's the way Llewyn moves through the story. Sometimes he will wander into a new situation with almost no reason for him to be there, and the connection to what has happened before will seem weak even after it is revealed; other times the Coens will take a chained series of events that other writers would be proud of and quietly undercut any sense of accomplishment. The movie never stops, and the characters don't necessarily move, but it never feels like they're out of sync.
One thing that obviously contributes to that is the cast of actors and characters that the Coens rotate through the move to play against Llewyn. None of the quirky characters hang around long enough to wear out their welcome, and the performances are all kind of great: Carey Mulligan, for instance, spends a lot of time playing Jean as a constant stream of anger that could become so abrasive that the way she's hitting every funny beat in the script wouldn't matter, but she captures the reason for that anger carefully, so that when her more appealing nature reveals itself, it doesn't have the feeling of a contradiction. There's a sequence with Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver that is sung-comedy gold, while Stark Sands provides a great contrast to Davis in his small part. John Goodman gets a showy part that he does great things with, and the likes of Ethan Phillips and F. Murray Abraham are just as perfectly cast. Some folks excel in the way they seem to do very little at all.
They're all working off Oscar Isaac, of course, and he is more than capable of holding the enterprise together. There's a weight on Davis, even if he does put much of it on his own back, and Isaac is able to put a layer of sadness underneath Davis's tendency toward being a jerk. There's an isolation to the character, often expressed as self-centeredness, but what's perhaps most impressive is the way he interacts with the other characters; there's not much warmth to how he plays off those he knows from before the start of the movie compared to the ones he's meeting for the first time, but the familiarity is there.
And he works pretty well with the cats, although you never know how much of that is the trainer finding which one of the similar-looking orange cats has the best attitude for the shot. Some of the most memorable shots involve the cat, though - a low-angle shot of him walking around like he owns the place, or an impressively emotional shot toward the end. As usual, the Coens get a lot of mileage out of the things that surround the plot, stitching together moments of observation and deadpan humor. They have the help of a great team: Bruno Delbonnel photographs a beautiful movie, for instance, and T-Bone Burnett helps them put together a soundtrack that ties the film together without often directly commenting on the action.Despite the fact that this will be filed away by most viewers as a "Coen Brothers Movie" even though Oscar Isaac's performance is fairly noteworthy and the subject matter is a genre of its own, I haven't said much about Joel & Ethan Coen's direct contributions, and in a way that speaks well of both their skills as filmmakers and this film in particular: "Inside Llewyn Davis" is saturated with their personality, but it also stands quite well on its own as a film rather than the collage of quirk and nostalgia that such iconoclastic filmmakers could easily have delivered.
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|