Strumming His Pain: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Film Review

By at December 5, 2013 | 10:29 pm | Print

5 / 5 stars

Inside Llewyn Davis Movie PosterAfter creating some of the most accomplished, poignantly eccentric films of the past three decades, Joel and Ethan Coen have produced what may be their career masterwork. Inside Llewyn Davis is an unexpected gem, a movie that seems completely familiar while turning narrative convention on its ear again and again. What appears to be the story of a struggling folk musician in 1961 New York City is far deeper — it’s the story of a man, maybe any man, maybe every man. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)

The time and place are almost incidental. We meet Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a singer with a sweet voice, a dour countenance and no place to call his own. Llewyn couch-hops across two polar worlds: a small Greenwich Village apartment inhabited by his ex (Carey Mulligan) and her sincere boyfriend (Justin Timberlake); and the considerably more upscale crosstown place belonging to a congenial college professor and his wife. These are people Llewyn both loves and resents in equal measure.

In the Coens’ hands, this is really just the beginning. While anxiously awaiting a new recording opportunity or some royalty bucks — anything, really — Llewyn starts down a seemingly unavoidable path that will either lead to his epiphany or his demise. And in true brilliant Coen fashion, it kind of does neither.

But thanks to Oscar Isaac’s finely tuned performance, we’re pulling for Llewyn with hesitation and anticipation, along for the cosmic ride (including a classically surreal Coens road trip, featuring a note-perfect John Goodman). Llewyn’s day-to-day encounters are littered with plot points you would swear are cues for a big final act payoff, a reward to reel in the audience after the friends’ couches and a chilly trek to Chicago. The story could have headed toward the sadness of an opportunity misjudged, embrace of a lost love, or clarity of an emotion untapped, it’s all introduced — and then dismissed. It’s a move that ignores every safe storytelling method, and a stroke of sure-handed screenwriting genius.

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

Don’t think, however, that the Coens completely pull the rug out from those who expect to hear some great music in the film. Isaac the musician has a magnetism that combines distance and disappointment, not unlike the emotional dynamics he displays as Llewyn. And an interlude in which Isaac, Timberlake and Adam Driver record a gimmicky pop song (“Please, Mr. Kennedy”) is one of the coolest, catchiest and more oddly complex scenes in any movie this year.

Isaac really gets what it means to be the protagonist in a Coen brothers’ character study. Think of Llewyn as a distant cousin to Larry Gopnik in the Coens’ A Serious Man: A guy who’s probably in the wrong setting, maybe in the wrong time — Llewyn’s talents seem a couple years too early for folk’s idealistic future — trying to figure out what the fates have in store. Isaac is careful not to be too persistent; he keeps any depression or hopefulness in check, giving Llewyn’s moments on the edge that much more impact.

Like other Coen entries, Inside Llewyn Davis requires a bit of space and time to really sink in. Like their greatest works, it brings a human soul to a distinctive, indefinable strangeness; it’s rare when a film doesn’t play quirky just for quirky’s sake. It’s even rarer when, in the process of gently turning a man’s world on its side, a film tantalizes an audience to want just a little bit more, compelled to see what plays out next.

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Trackbacks For This Post

  1. […] “An unexpected gem, a movie that seems completely familiar while turning narrative convention on its ear again and again.” – Norm Schrager, Meet In The Lobby […]

  2. […] 1. Inside Llewyn Davis The Coen Brothers’ narrative tomfoolery reaches all-new heights of intelligence with this story of a man (a “serious man,” if I may) trying to make it as a folk singer in the early 1960s. As the Coens bring us further “inside Llewyn Davis” — his anger, his sad lack of center, his hippie existentialism — we discover this movie isn’t really about folk music at all. It’s another somber, surreal Coen Brothers character study, one that lays out a series of potential plot pivots only to pass them by and send Llewyn down a road from which he simply can’t pull off. By the film’s coda, a real honest-to-goodness coda, our expectations of what makes up a filmed story have been skewered, the brilliance leaving us wanting a little more time with Llewyn, just to get our head together and move on to the next gig. (Full review of Inside Llewyn Davis at Meet In the Lobby.) […]

  3. […] city. This sci-fi thriller, starring the excellent character actor Robin Bartlett (Shutter Island, Inside Llewyn Davis) has played at Sundance and the Berlinale, and been recognized by Film […]


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