in Review

Inside Llewyn Davis

I’m not sure I’ve ever walked out of a Coen Brothers movie and thought to myself, “Yup, I know I exactly how I feel about what I just witnessed”.  There’s such an odd tone and such an odd set of consequences that the Coens always heap upon their characters that it’s usually a bit jarring once you get spit out in to the real world after spending two hours inside the Coens’ own warped vision of American life.  Which I’m not complaining about at all — I think it’s great that these guys always leave an audience with plenty to chew on.  It just makes it kind of hard for a reviewer like myself to pinpoint any sort of precise opinion on something like Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that finds the Coens exploring the music and misery of a troubled folk singer that just can’t quite get it together.

Oscar Isaac stars as the film’s titular character, who finds himself at the heart of the early 60’s Greenwich Village folk scene that famously gave birth to Bob Dylan prior to his rise to superstardom.  Davis is however on a much more downward trajectory, as he finds himself struggling to find a place to sleep each night, while his career as a solo artist appears to be going nowhere.  Much like it’s protagonist, Inside Llewyn Davis has a very rambling nature to it, as Davis encounters a bunch of colorful characters on his way towards the rock bottom of show business.

Of course, it’s not really surprising that a Coen Brothers movie would be filled with a bunch of quirky and often hilarious side characters, but I’ll just point them out anyway.  As it seems to be his speciality in the Coens’ movies, John Goodman plays a pretty insufferable human being who’s nonetheless a lot of fun to watch.  Also, Adam Driver and Justin Timberlake are good in their depictions of characters that feel very specific to the kinds of misfits that inhabited the Greenwich folk scene.  Carey Mulligan also does a good job of being constantly pissed off, even if her main subplot is a bit underdeveloped.  And then there’s Oscar Isaac, who does a good job of giving just enough of a roguish sad-sack quality that keeps this often selfish and reckless character from ever becoming completely unsympathetic.

As someone who’s always looked at the early 60’s New York scene with a certain sense of romanticism, I really enjoyed the way this film captures all the nuances of a time and place that seems so far removed from the kind of New York we’re accustomed to seeing on screen.  There’s a kind of haze that hangs over Bruno Delbonnel’s gorgeous cinematography, which just seems to reinforce the downtrodden nature of Inside Llewyn Davis.  The film’s authenticity is also enhanced by it’s many musical sequences, which are great because unlike a lot of movies about music, they actually convince us that there’s a great artist trapped inside the soul of our troubled protagonist.

So maybe I’m not wrestling with this movie as much as I thought I was, since from all the good things I’ve had to say about Inside Llewyn Davis it would appear that I like it quite a bit.  But perhaps I was just expecting a bit more upbeat nostalgia piece about an oft-romanticized moment in music history, and this is far from that.  Which again is one of those great things about the Coen’s — that they’re willing to explore the nooks and crannies of the American experience with these darkly comic sensibilities that are prone to making you work a little a bit as an audience member, whether you like it or not.