Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis


Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
104 min.
Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Adam Driver, Star Sands, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Alex Karpovsky, F. Murray Abraham
MPAA Rating
R for language including some sexual references

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More than just a film about struggling in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960’s, Inside Llewyn Davis uses historical folk songs to paint a portrait of a miserable young singer facing depression while trying to survive and find success.

The suicide of his recording partner sends Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) on a difficult odyssey to move past his anger, resentment and sadness and turn those qualities into grist for his performances of folk staples at smokey bars where patrons seem more interested in listening to upbeat songs. Unable to make enough money to afford a place of his own, Llewyn spends the night at the apartments of friends and supporters. One of these is a woman with whom he shared a brief fling and believes that he may have impregnated her.

Unable to catch a break, Llewyn varyingly lets another couple’s cat escape, gets beaten up by an incensed husband, records a catchy tune choosing an immediate payment instead of royalties, nearly ends up arrested, and tries to find a producer that will give him an opportunity to perform solo on an album. A string of poor decisions and unlucky circumstances drive the depression deeper and prevent him from moving on with his own life. Will he survive and overcome, or will he forever influence his own song selection by perpetuating his own misery, a misery no one seems to be able to lift?

Isaac first came to my attention opposite Carey Mulligan (who plays the pregnant woman in this film) in Drive where he played her ex-convict boyfriend. While he didn’t have many scenes there, it was clear an emerging talent was at work. His work on this film certifies that belief. It’s hard to take a character with so little self-worth and turn him into a credible human being that’s more than the sum of its tics, but Isaac does so perfectly. Llewyn is a pitiable young man whose very essence can be found in a small part of each us. He reflects our fears, uncertainties and depression, giving us an outlet to sympathize with the character.

Joel and Ethan Coen who write, direct and edit every film they put out, have spent years perfecting the lovable schlub character. Like one of their previous films, A Serious Man featured a similar character who felt a bit more alive than Llewyn. However, in spite of their distinctiveness, they have more in common than at first appears. Their misery puts our own lives in perspective. It enables us to find what makes our lives difficult and hopefully provides a clarity to those experiences that might help us move past them. As much as the film provides a slice of reality in the music scene of that period and locale, there’s a universal humanity to Llewyn’s struggles and that’s one of the reasons the Coens have grown on me in their most recent output.

Following their Oscar win for No Country for Old Men, the Coens have returned to their dark comedic roots with films that aren’t designed to maximize Oscar impact (even if they are frequently cited as contenders) and meant merely to entertain. It’s perhaps why some of my favorite films of theirs have been off-the-beaten-track kind of stories that critics love, but for some reason don’t have the deserved impact at the Oscars simply because they aren’t convention Oscar. This film ranks slightly above A Serious Man in my estimation, and just below True Grit and The Man Who Wasn’t There in their long list of film credits.

While there are more light-hearted elements in other films of theirs, Inside Llewyn Davis‘ beauty is in its reduction of human fear and desire for success basic, relatable components, while providing a gorgeous and haunting environment for their tale. If you love folk songs but aren’t a fan of the Coens, stick to the soundtrack. Otherwise, this film might just be your thing.
Review Written
January 28, 2014

1 Comment

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  1. This is one of my top ten favorites of the year. Amazing soundtrack, cinematography & memorable characters (as always with the Cohens).

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