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With ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ the Coen Brothers hit the top of their form

Oscar Isaac stars in 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
Oscar Isaac stars in 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
Courtesy CBS Films

Inside Llewyn Davis

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You know you’re getting old when the upstart Coen Brothers are suddenly master craftsmen, at the height of their powers. But that’s exactly what you get from “Inside Llewyn Davis;” a rich beautifully crafted film that nonetheless retains the Coens’ trademark quirkiness. No question about it - this remarkable film is the work of supremely self-assured filmmakers at the pinnacle of their careers.

Oscar Isaac, until now not a well-known actor, has appeared before in a variety of TV and movie projects, including Ridley Scott’s unnecessary remake of “Robin Hood” and Zack Snyder’s ill-conceived “Sucker Punch.” His comparative anonymity is likely at an end. Isaac, who is on screen in every scene of this movie, and in fact is in almost every shot, is nothing short of remarkable as the complex, prickly Davis, a frequently dislikeable protagonist, who in a tightly compressed story struggles with the music business, the harsh New York City winter, his family, his tangled love life, and most of all, his art, which has been rocked by the suicide of his friend and artistic partner.

Although this is an electrifying breakout performance for Oscar Isaac, he shares the screen with several better known names, all at the top of their game. Carey Mulligan is thankfully unrecognizable from her bland, forgettable take on Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s hideous remake of “The Great Gatsby.” Here, as a folk singer and an ex-lover and frenemy of Davis’, she’s every bit as prickly as the main character, though this is completely at odds with her on-stage demeanor. Justin Timberlake plays her husband with likeable sincerity. The chameleon-like F. Murray Abraham appears all-too briefly as a brusque but honest club owner. John Goodman is at his scene-stealing best as a pompous jazz musician whose car Davis shares on a strange, surreal road trip that could have been written by Kerouac.

As good as the cast is, they benefit from a marvelous script (written by the Coen Brothers), which, Odyssey-like, takes Davis through a series of revelatory encounters with the story’s oddball collection of colorful supporting characters, including a memorable cat. There is a circularity to the plot, which starts with Davis, having finished a set, meeting a stranger in a back alley who beats him up, and (spoiler alert), ends at the same place. Not before then do we realize we’ve been watching a story told largely in flashback and the effect is disconcertingly “Groundhog Day”-esque.

The scene plays at diametrical opposite ends of the spectrum at the beginning and end of the film, however. When we see it the first time, Davis brushes himself off and gets back on the horse. At the end of the film, when Davis heads again to the back alley, Bob Dylan has already taken the stage, not a victory for Davis. Dylan, the harbinger of the singer/songwriter, was among other things, a death knell for pure folk, in which the whole point was performing old songs that someone else wrote.

Dylan was also used a metaphor of changing times (and who better than the man who wrote the lyrics “the times they are a-changin’”?) in Philip Kaufman’s 1979 film “The Wanderers,” which was partly about the painful transition from the fifties to the sixties. He also reportedly was the impetus for the movie’s music producer, T-Bone Burnett, to take the stage as a performer for the first time during the now-legendary Rolling Thunder Revue. Burnett knows the movie’s landscape from personal experience, and the deftly chosen music adds palpable added dimension to a story that’s already piercing, revelatory and intensely personal.

But it’s the Coen brothers’ craftsmanship, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s muted color palette photography that really raises this beautifully strange, quirky movie into the ranks of the filmmakers’ best work. This is such a mature, smoothly crafted piece of filmmaking you may forget it’s supposed to be a quirky, edgy pseudo-indie. And then there’s the music. The Coen Brothers insisted that the songs employed (to excellent effect) in their movie be heard in their entirety, and the Julliard-trained Davis sings with an assured, clear voice, including during a novelty song, “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” performed with Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver (“Lincoln,” “Frances Ha”). The music in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” like the title character, has the tone, the heart, and the regret, of an artist whose time has already passed him by.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens January 10th at the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX and the Spectrum 7 on Delaware Avenue, Albany.