Ethan and Joel Coen continue their run as arguably the best American filmmaker’s around with Inside Llewyn Davis, the story of a folk-singer prone to bitterness. The singer is the titular Llewyn Davis, played in one of the year’s best performances by Oscar Isaac. He lives in 1961 Greenwich Village, just on the cusp of Bob Dylan. Llewyn’s life is a difficult one, one that he has a large hand in its making. Prone to sleeping on friends’ couches, Llewyn Davis lies to get money, yells at those helping him and would rather make a quick buck than do a bit of legwork to make more.
The closest he has to direction in his life isn’t even intentional. Llewyn is guided by, if anything, a cat named Ulysses he accidentally let out of an apartment one morning. Moving place to place appears to take a lot out of Llewyn. In a clearly bitter cold, Llewyn stumbles down snowy city streets, a smile only peeking forth while dishing out an insult or stumbling across Ulysses; the latter occuring more often than you might imagine.
Llewyn is at his rawest when he sings. Formerly a member of a duo, whose ending is one of the Coens’ finer reveals, Llewyn is trying to break into the solo game. His displeasure with others is shown early. One evening while watching two friends perform at his usual haunt, he seems to be half-enjoying himself, taking in the notes one-by-one. Then the crowd begins singing along and you can feel the eye-roll. It's one of many terrific scenes.
Ethan and Joel Coen build Llewyn to be a fascinating man, one that would seem heartless if we didn’t see how deeply he takes in things. His gruff nature is earned through setbacks, including a remarkably written one which says a lot about the music industry, art and life altogether; skill at something means nothing if nobody’s buying said skill.
Oscar Isaac has eyes that are tired with all these missteps and hurdles. His Llewyn doesn’t appear physically worn-down, but emotionally so. Isaac has a haunting voice as well, selling the heart of the songs he belts, some originally conceived by T-Bone Burnett and others from the era the movie’s set. Supporting turns by Carey Mulligan, F. Murray Abraham and John Goodman also linger. They may not get awards, though that’s more a testament to their brief screentime than their quality.
This is one of 2013’s best, a tender movie that skips sentimentality, all while remaining a comedy that skips the expected laughs for the ones that cut deeper.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens in Seattle Friday.