Written by Zac Platt.
Over their 30-year-long careers, Joel and Ethan Coen have learned how to distil their films down into their raw philosophical and cinematic elements. Time and again they have bucked the need for story resolution or structural conventions to give priority to their characters and thesis. While perhaps easier to digest than Burn After Reading or A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis is still a film that asks rather than tells; providing you with a world ripe with story, but often occurring off-page. In truth it does suffer from a severe drop in momentum in the second half and a bookend that, while possibly profound, robs the film of what could have been a strong finale to an intentionally directionless tale. But ignoring these (perhaps expected) indulgences, the Coen brothers have again managed to captivate with their signature quirkiness, strong character building and a mastery of cinematic storytelling.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a week in the life of its titular singer (played by Oscar Isaac) as he tries to make ends meet in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 60s. Struggling to make it as a solo act after his previous partner committed suicide, and with a manager who doesn’t pay him a dime, Davis is effectively homeless, lugging his guitar and a runaway cat from one friends couch to another.
While there is certainly an underlying melancholy to the whole thing, it’s a much less depressing tale than it may sound. The Coen brothers’ unique comedy is at the forefront of the film, with Davis playing the straight man to the absurdity of his directionless life. The organic plotting keeps you moving from scene to scene with a sympathetic smile and provides plenty of laughs along the way. There’s a lot of fun to be had on the journey through Davis’ world, which makes the tragedy below the surface that much more powerful whenever the film stops to take stock. It’s never quite in the spotlight, but there is just enough eruption in Davis when his deceased partner is mentioned and just enough defeat whenever his career hits a wall, for you to see just how broken a man he is beneath it all.
It’s also appreciated that the music, being so integral to the film’s setting, is presented with the reverence it deserves regardless of the ludicrous characters and comedy surrounding it. Whenever Davis picks up his guitar the film stops to breath. The choice to record the songs live and to mostly show them in their entirety adds a weight to Davis’ musical ambitions that proves essential to justifying the struggle his lifestyle puts him through. It’s an inspired approach that is infinitely more difficult to accomplish than it may seem (Isaac must keep perfect tempo in each take or else editing would prove impossible), displaying a confidence in the Coen’s vision.
Inside Llewyn Davis’ supporting cast are all generally fun and get their moments to shine, but they largely feel like fixtures of the world for Davis to bounce off, rather than fully fledged characters. Carey Mulligan is possibly the most realised as the unwaveringly pissed-off Jean, though even she proves a little one-note in her condescending interactions with Davis. Others, such as Justin Timberlake’s Jim or John Goodman’s Roland Turner, are fun caricatures that offer some enjoyable moments, but are clearly there to represent an aspect of the time above anything else.
Luckily, Davis is a strong enough character that’s more than capable of carrying this movie along. Watching his irritation with both his bad luck day-to-day, as well as the overwhelming irrelevance of his life, is at once hilarious and crushing depending on how hard you look. In an interesting move, Davis’ journey reaches its climax mid-way into the second act, thus allowing the audience to see him fail, accept that failure, fail at failing, and wind up right back where he started. Oscar Isaac perfectly embodies the role. His spot on comedic timing and ready-to-snap frustration completely disarm you, making his talent as a musician take you by surprise each intimate and wonderful moment he takes the stage as Davis.
As with any Coen film, there is plenty being discussed that isn’t necessarily being said. Themes of abandonment and how that defines you are explored throughout the film, sometimes with ingenious motifs and others in the circular structure of the film itself. It’s the sort of thing that can be infinitely rewarding or incredibly frustrating depending on whether you want answers from a film, or whether you want it to ask something of you. Neither outlook is necessarily wrong, but it’s an unfair criticism to fault the Coen brothers for taking the road less travelled. Inside Llewyn Davis is everything whimsical and everything prickly about their style of film making. Structural issues rear their ugly heads and it’s perhaps a little more forgettable amongst other films in their extensive catalogue. But between the wonderful creation that is Llewyn Davis, the rich setting and their deft hand at balancing the comedy and emotional weight of the film, there is an excellent piece of cinema for any Coen brothers fan needing a fix.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10