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Review: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is solemn musical odyssey into the mind and soul

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Inside Llewyn Davis

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I like movies. Even more so, I like reviewing movies. But there is a bit of a downside to being a film critic – there is often not much turnaround time. Usually when I review a film, I watch it once then have a day or two to write the article. And often, that just is not long enough.

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The fantastic thing about movies, especially the really good ones, is that they have the ability to expand and take on new life inside your mind. If I find myself continuously thinking about a particular film for days after I see it, then more often than not, I know it is good. Unfortunately, there is not much time for this with a deadline looming – which can also be a detriment to the film’s initial reception.

Fortunately, with Inside Llewyn Davis, I not only got to see the film several weeks in advance, but I got to see it twice. And in those extra weeks (and the extra viewing), inside my mind, a good film evolved into a great one.

To get things started, not a whole heckuvalot happens in the film, plot-wise at least. Not saying that necessarily in a bad way, but it is true. The film meanders like a snake (or lost cat). Not trying to sound pretentious or opaque, but that is kind of what the film is about – being lost and unsure what to do next.

Llewyn Davis (played wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, in a long overdue breakout role) is a struggling musician in the midst of the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s. He is somewhat of a misanthrope – a stubborn, antagonistic, and slightly conceited one at that (which is all just nice way of saying he is an asshole). But at the same time, he is also a damaged soul, a man-child lost in life, and ultimately, his own worst enemy.

Llewyn wanders through the famed folk scene with a guitar on his back and a chip on his shoulder. He is struggling – both professionally and emotionally. The are multiple reason for this feeling, most notably financial, family, and friendship-based. He is fairly apathetic about most things, but even when he does try to do right, he often fails. Llewyn struggles with himself. He wants success, but on his own terms (which never happens). He wants happiness, but not at the sacrifice of his independence. Basically, he does not know what he wants, but whatever it is, he needs it. He is lost without it.

Inside Llewyn Davis is gorgeously photographed in solemn blue and gray hues, perfectly fitting the film’s cold, winter setting and its overall somber tone. Though stark and moody, it is also quite funny – in that trademark dark humor of the Coens. One scene in particular, in the recording studio, is one of the most absurdly hilarious three minutes of any movie all year.

Being a Coen Brothers film, the film, of course, has menagerie of fleeting and quirky characters. First is a “mainstream” folk music couple, Jim and Jean, played by an angry Carey Mulligan (a kind of one note character) and a naïve Justin Timberlake. They are all friends, but Llewyn is not the kind of friend you want to have. He uses Jim for money and a place to sleep while impregnating Jean behind his back.

Others include: a sweet country-boy-turned-enlisted-soldier-turned-folk-singer (Stark Sands); a bass singing Jewish cowboy (Adam Driver); a dismissive and insulting gasbag (John Goodman) and his driver, a nearly silent mash-up of early Brando and the Marlboro Man (Garrett Hedlund); and finally, a put-upon Upper East Side couple, and their freedom-seeking orange tabby cat, Ulysses.

The film is jam-packed with terrific performances, but Oscar Isaac in the lead role stands out (as it rightfully should) among the rest. It is a true testament to his performance (and the Coens’ script) that the audience can not only identify with Llewyn, but actually like him, despite his obvious, inherent unlikability.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie that haunts you long after you see it. The characters – and their beautiful music – live inside your mind. It is a movie that demands to be seen. Not because it is a movie with an intricate plot or an abundance of twists (it is the complete opposite, in fact), but rather it is a movie so subtle and gentle that it needs time to coalesce in your mind.

And it should go without saying, but the film also has undoubtedly the best soundtrack of year, so there is that too.

* * * * * out of 5 stars

Inside Llewyn Davis opens in theaters on Friday, December 20 – locally at The Theatres at Canal Place only (for now at least).

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