The Coen brothers take New York circa 1961 in their latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and they bring their unusual sensibilities and expert filmmaking with them. In almost no ways would you be able to call “Llewyn Davis” a happy film, but it is thoroughly enjoyable thanks to the dark and true humor, fantastic music, and great acting led by Oscar Isaac.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” centers on a week in the life of the titular musician as he continuously makes poor decisions and battles the harsh winter as his career and personal life are at all time lows. Llewyn is a square peg trying to fit into a round hole; he sees things differently than his friends and family and that holds him back. The counter-culture mentality that defined the 60s is embodied in Llewyn as he refuses to just ‘exist,’ as he puts it.
Like all their movies, the Joel and Ethan Coen tell a story only they could. Llewyn is an asshole, but you sympathize with him as he fights against the trend of everything around him. He’s an excellent addition to their stable of memorable characters. Equal credit is due to Oscar Isaac for his portrayal of Llewyn. He shines both in the acting and singing of the role. In a scene where he auditions for F. Murray Abraham’s character, his performance is so soulful it is easily one of the better scenes put on screen this year.
Making that scene work was the song selection, which the Coens collaborated on with legendary music producer T Bone Burnett. This is the second time they have paired up, the first being 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Going above and beyond just picking and creating good songs, they also distinctly separated those played by Llewyn and those by other musicians. Llewyn nearly always sings somber, melancholy songs, while “Please Mr. Kennedy,” which is Justin Timberlake’s song in the movie, is upbeat and humorous.
Speaking of Mr. Timberlake, while his time is brief on screen, he is a part of the fantastic ensemble. Oscar Isaac finds himself among all these great characters throughout the story that we wish we got more time with them. Chiefly among them are Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, and Roland Turner, played by John Goodman.
Mulligan is a heat-seeking missile from the second she appears on screen, launching barbs and pointed statements at Llewyn constantly. Still, she and Isaac have a great back and forth that really helps establish their relationship. We get even less of Goodman and his character’s own story, but he is mesmerizing as he rattles off monologues with his own jabs at Llewyn interspersed throughout. This may be the greatest crime of the film, that two interesting characters, and good performances, are bereft of enough time to be fully developed and appreciated.
It’s a bleak film and it looks it too, which must be properly accredited to the great work by DP Bruno Delbonnel. Gray and hazy, the cinematography helps capture the winter setting as well as the fog that Llewyn seems to be stuck in that is not letting him see things as clearly as those around him. Delbonnel has already raked in some reward for his work, being cited as the year’s best by the New York Film Critic’s Circle.
Fans of the Coen brothers will not be disappointed as the duo continues to march to the beat of their own drum. At this point who would want them to do anything else? But even newcomers should be able to find the film enjoyable and hopefully not to off-put by the less than happy nature of it. Another piece of evidence for this banner year of film.