Inside Llewyn Davis

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/20/13 05:36:52

"Hard Times In New York Town"
5 stars (Awesome)

At this point, Joel & Ethan Coen have long established themselves as being among the best and most distinctive filmmakers working in the world today. Obviously, their immense cinematic talents have played a large part in their ascendance but some of it also has to be attributed to a combination of good luck and good timing. After all, if they hadn't been fortunate enough to find people with enough confidence in their abilities to finance their idiosyncratic visions or even if there had been a different makeup in the 1984 New York Film Festival selection committee, whose decision to admit their debut "Blood Simple" into that year's festival gave the film its first major showcase, they might have turned out to be just another pair of would-be moviemakers whose careers never quite took off. While I cannot say for sure if this is something that the Coens have ever contemplated to a great degree but this notion does resonate deeply throughout "Inside Llewyn Davis," their latest masterwork and one of the most unexpected moves to date in a career that has so far been filled with them.

Taking place during the winter of 1961, the film is set amidst the folk music scene of New York's Greenwich Village in the days just before folk exploded onto the national consciousness with the arrival of Bob Dylan. Our anti-hero is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a fixture on the scene (loosely inspired by real-life folkie Dave Von Ronk) for whom disaster and misery appear to be his constant companions. He is still reeling from the suicide of his one-time singing partner, his solo album has sold so poorly that the company is literally throwing copies away, his father is in a nursing home, his last girlfriend returned home to Akron after having an abortion and he may have also impregnated Jane (Carey Mulligan), another singer who has a more successful act with her nice-guy husband Jim (Justin Timberlake). Even the simple act of leaving the apartment of an acquaintance whose couch he has been crashing on goes hideously wrong when he locks out the owner's cat and is forced to take possession of it until he can get a hold of the guy to return it. Self-absorbed, misanthropic and disdainful of his own gifts, the only remotely redeemable thing about him is that he is an immensely talented performer who is able to connect with the emotions conveyed in the old songs he sings with startling grace, power and clarity.

Unfortunately for him, no one seems to notice these gifts and over the course of a few days, we see his life spiral even further out of control. His attempts to care for and return the cat go disastrously wrong in ways that will continue to haunt him throughout the film. Jim does him a favor by getting him a gig singing with him on a space race-themed novelty tune, "Please Mr. Kennedy," but Llewyn is forced to sign away future royalties and credit in exchange for some quick cash and then has to watch as it becomes a smash hit. With nothing left to lose, he decides to venture off to Chicago in the hopes of scoring a gig at the Gate of Horn, a renowned club run by the highly respected folk music presenter Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), perhaps the one person out there with the ability to recognize his gifts. After hitching a ride with sarcastic hepcat Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his driver/assistant (Garret Hedlund) that goes about as well as everything else in his life, Llewyn arrives in Chicago and auditions for Grossman with a starkly beautiful rendition of "The Death of Queen Anne." Suffice it to say, Grossman's response is as devastating as the performance itself.

Considering that nearly all of the previous Coen Brothers films have seen them approach their subject from an ironic distance that is occasionally mixed in with a certain degree of genuine affection, followers of their work may go into "Inside Llewyn Davis" expecting a similarly sardonic depiction of a milieu that was infamous for its aching sincerity and strict demands for authenticity that would be immediately abandoned the moment that they discovered there was money to be made with a less rigorous and more commercially viable approach. That was certainly my expectation when I sat down to watch the film and I was therefore surprised to discover just how moving it was and how empathic they were towards Llewyn. Despite his countless flaws, the Coens demonstrate a genuine sense of compassion towards him when all is said and done--he may be a miserable soul and an unapologetic user of others but there is still a charm and integrity about him, even if it only truly comes through when he is performing. Instead of simply goofing on the old trope about the artist whose jerkiness off the stage is offset by his genius on it, they treat it in a more realistic fashion that never lets him off the hook but still manages to allow us to care for him despite his actions.

While the compassionate and sincere attitude may be a definitive break from their past efforts, "Inside Llewyn Davis" also serves up any number of prime Coenesque elements as well. The grittily gorgeous production design and deliberately drab cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel does such a wonderful job of establishing the setting that it practically serves as a character all by itself. There are any number of hilarious and brilliantly written scenes--my favorites include Llewyn's meeting with the head of his supremely low-rent record label, the jazz-loving John Goodman character's highly verbose diatribes against the whole folk music scene and the punchline to the sequence in which Llewyn returns what he thinks is the correct cat to its rightful owners. The soundtrack, a collection of folk standards put together under the auspices of producer T-Bone Burnett (who previously collaborated with the Coens on "The Big Lebowski," "O Brother, Where Art Thou" and "The Ladykillers"), is also a knockout as well. With the exception of Timberlake, none of the actors are known for their singing but they all bring so much passion to the songs that one would be hard-pressed to tell them apart from actual singers of the era. (The rendition of "Five Hundred Miles" by Timberlake, Mulligan and Stark Sands is especially lovely.) In other words, be prepared to go out and buy the soundtrack virtually the moment that the end credits finish running.

The dramatic performances are just as transfixing across the board as well. Oscar Isaac is an actor whose previous work has done little for me (largely because of his presence in "Sucker Punch," one of the worst films I have ever seen in my life) but his work here is an absolute revelation. Whether on the stage investing his heart in such tunes as "Hang Me, O Hang Me" and "Fare Thee Well" (the latter being the song that he used to perform with his late partner) or on the streets hopping from couch to couch in an effort to survive in an increasingly cold and cruel climate, he is never less than mesmerizing--in the annals of great performances in Coen Brothers films, this one ranks right near the very top of the heap. As the clean-cut couple of fellow performers whose live are inextricably intertwined with Llewyn's, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan are equally good in the way that they play off of their typical screen personas. (The latter has a priceless bit in which she profanely rips Llewyn to shreds in Washington Square Park that is the best bit of acting that she has ever done.) As for Coen regular John Goodman, he only turns up for a few scenes but makes such a vivid impression in them that an entire film revolving around his character would be a welcome thing indeed.

After watching "Inside Llewyn Davis" for the first time, I have to admit that I had a little bit of trouble with the last couple of minutes--I understood what the Coens were going for and the final twist was amusing, if a tad obvious, but I didn't think that it quite came together as successfully as they had hoped. The funny thing is that over the next few weeks, I saw any number of movies but I couldn't shake that ending from my mind. Now I realize that a tidier and more satisfying ending simply would not have worked in this particular case. Like the rest of the film, it is amusing, sad, elliptical and strangely moving in equal measures. Also like the rest of "Inside Llewyn Davis," it is just about perfect. It may not have the commercial impact of a more crowd-pleasing work like "O Brother, Where Art Thou" or "True Grit" but it is indeed a film to treasure.

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