What else can you do but unconditionally love The Coen Brothers? So technically solid and creatively entertaining are their films that their involvement in a project is reason enough to check it out. They also have a peculiar habit of oscillating between dark, gritty genre pieces and oddball adult comedies. “No Country for Old Men” is followed by “Burn After Reading.” Now three years past the release of their Western remake of “True Grit,” the Coens return with another surprise – a quiet, simmering character study that is one of the most affecting, memorable films of their career. “Inside Llewyn Davis” feels in scope to be a follow-up to version of the Coens that made “Fargo” and “A Serious Man” – beautifully fusing the dramatic and comedic roots that make all of their films so uniquely treasured.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a solo folk singer living in New York City, is lost in the increasingly antiquated, band-lead world of the early 1960’s music scene. On his own after the death of his musical partner and best friend, he struggles by on the good nature of others while making a go at a career as a musician despite facing dead ends at every turn. Llewyn uses his days to argue with his pregnant ex-girlfriend (played by Carey Mulligan), play gigs in smoky basement bars, and find a friend’s (or stranger’s) couch to crash on for the night. Money is short, though, very short. The allure of a more comfortable life working a day job itches at Llewyn’s all-in commitment to the folk lifestyle, but some inexplicable drive pushes him forward as the obstacles pile up.
Joel and Ethan Coen took a great gamble in casting the relatively unheard of Oscar Isaac, an actor best known for co-starring with Carey Mulligan in 2011’s “Drive” as her ex-con husband. While Isaac seemed perfect for that rough, dangerous character, he completely transforms here as the longhaired, unkempt, sensitive Llewyn Davis. As a not yet over-saturated American actor, Isaac is just new enough for us to really dive in to his believable character study. It simply wouldn’t be the same with a Coen regular like George Clooney (although John Goodman does sneak his way into the film for a brilliant cameo).
Isaac’s talent as a real-life musician allows for eye-drawing wide shots that prove to you he is really playing and singing these moving folk songs, and as Llewyn slips into the very emotional place of the folk singer’s performance (his only successful form of communication with the world around him), it’s easy to sense a deeper understanding of this connection from Isaac outside of traditional character acting. Llewyn isn’t the type of person you find yourself easily on the same wavelength with. He’s intensely in his own head and seems constantly engaged in an internal struggle of wanting to be successful but hating the machine that produces popular music. Early on, this has the feeling of one of those special roles intimately linked to an actor’s pre-existing ability. Isaac makes it an absolute charm to discover exactly what is “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
While most of the cast is pitch-perfect, the brief cameo by pop-music superstar turned not-half-bad actor Justin Timberlake is the only broken link. I really enjoyed his presence in “The Social Network,” but that film was much slicker, and the content was all about the pinnacle of social technology in the modern age. Here, in this raw, period setting, Timberlake sticks out like a sore thumb and draws the mind back to the present day world waiting outside the theater.
Even for the Coens, Llewyn Davis is one downtrodden as hell character. It was a pleasant surprise to find that a delightful mix of dark humor finds its way in to the otherwise bleak story. A lot of this comes from Isaac’s frequently comedic, blank facial reactions, as well as some masterfully designed subplots. The film opens on a short sequence in which Llewyn accidentally lets a cat out of an apartment before finding himself locked out and is forced to carry the cat with him on the subway as he rides back into the city. I love that the Coens can hold back from the distinct dialogue everyone is waiting for in order to tell these little, charming visual stories.
The music selection (that includes original folk songs as well as the recreated versions featuring Isaac’s voice) is so deserving of montage and the filmmakers deliver with elegantly simple imagery. Isaac’s performance is able to captivate in large part thanks to the lo-fi photography captured by French master cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (“Amelie”), who is filling the very large shoes of regular Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins. Delbonnel gives the film its homey, raw look that allows you to nearly forget the incredible 1960’s production design that surrounds the image. Rows of 60’s cars, period wardrobe, and a pervasive, deeply desaturated color tone pump up the production value in unobtrusive ways.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is such an easy film to fall in love with. The music, setting, and melancholic tone are irresistible. Oscar Isaac’s performance is astounding – a guaranteed nomination* – and, barring a last-minute secret Daniel Day-Lewis film, deserving of the win.
*I was wrong! Check out my Oscar 2014 Snubs Discussion for a rant on Oscar Isaac’s lack of recognition by the Academy.
U.S. Wide Release: December 20th, 2013 | U.K. Wide Release: January 24th, 2014
1 hr. 45 min.