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25 Movies to See Before the Oscars: 9. Inside Llewyn Davis

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Nominations: Cinematography, Sound Mixing

Hollywood loves making movies about lovely success stories, the tales of those lucky people who achieve their goal against incredible odds and amidst heavy and wide competition. But what about the guy who doesn’t make it – is his story any less interesting? This field of inquiry is ripe for the taking by brother Joel and Ethan Coen, who regale their devoted audience with the tale of Llewyn Davis, played with soul and gravity by Oscar Isaac (not unlike the happenstance magnetism of fellow Coen acolyte John Turturro), as that other guy who was trying find fame and fortune amidst the folk revival of the early sixties.

The Coen Brothers have been making literary and cinematically referential films for years in an apparent though still distinctly original way, and Llewyn Davis is no different. This time around their film exudes a strong Absurdist quality as if it is a twenty-first century version of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Llewyn is a talented jerk who seems to spend his life from causing ad exacerbating all sorts of debacles and evading the consequences; he bounces around from gig to gig and taking advantage of the couches belonging to people of kinder people, wondering where the world he’s supposed to be in went to. This isn’t to say he isn’t sympathetic: at the center of the film is his horrible luck at losing and letting go of the better things of his life – he’s recently lost his singing partner and has become penniless with too many unsold record sitting around. The film is beautifully composed of a simple collection of tragic everyday losses, though unlike Vladimir and Estragon futilely struggling towards uncertainty together, Llewyn slogs through his existence alone, his life being haphazard means to an illusive end. And all the while the Coen Brothers fill the empty spaces with their signature brand of dark humor, the coincidental raillery towards the pathos of human suffering – what else can one do when Isaac’s baffled and helpless Llewyn stands by while Garrett Hedlund’s character scrapes John Goodman’s ODing jazzman off the floor with an all-shrugs, no-worries, beatnik-dourness line like “He’s fine”?

The fresh breath of the film can be found in the warm folk numbers that are interspersed through the film, and thankfully no reality is besmirched with lip-synching. Isaac sings so mournfully and expressively and longingly, as if song is the only outlet of raw emotion that Llewyn knows even if he doesn’t recognize as the catharsis it clearly is for him. The only moment of pure levity belongs to the scene in which the film’s big original song written by Justin Timberlake and the Coen Brother (nominated for Original Song at the Golden Globes but not the Oscars – boo for every voter without a sense of humor) is recorded in a studio with Llewyn, Timberlake’s hilariously vanilla Jim, and constantly surprising Adam Driver’s Al Cody: the song is supposedly about John Glenn’s trepidations over orbiting the Earth in the Mercury 7 space program, called “ Please, Mr. Kennedy.” The film was worthy to be recognized in far more categories than it is, not just Original Song. But a story that is so bleak is understandably hard to warm up to.

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