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Josh Reviews Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is another home run from the Coen Brothers.  I found the film to be emotionally wrenching, an unflinching look at the pain, heartbreak, and rejection that so often accompanies the men and women who try to create art (be that music, paintings, film, etc.).  It’s a film that is deeply depressing, and yet I was absolutely entranced by the story that was unfolding before me.

Set in 1961, the film chronicles a tumultuous week in the life of Llewyn Davis, a young folk-singer.  Llewyn is able to scrape together gigs here and there playing his music, but he doesn’t have the money to have a home or even many worldly possessions other than his guitar.  He crashes on the couches of various friends and acquaintances, staying with each host for just a day or two here and there, as long as he can get away with before he gets on their nerves.  Llewyn is a screw-up.  He seems to have bungled most of his personal relationships (and we see him do a significant amount of additional bungling in the week chronicled in the film), and he hasn’t found the musical success he strives for.  I found Llewyn to be a sympathetic figure, even though the Coens seem to relish letting us see just what a self-centered nincompoop he can be.  Writing the other day about American Hustle, I commented that a film can be enjoyable even when anchored by an unlikable character, and I think that Inside Llewyn Davis is a strong example of that particular sub-genre.

I don’t think I’ve ever before seen Oscar Isaac in a film, but I’ll be paying attention from here on out.  Mr. Isaac is phenomenal as the titular Llewyn Davis.  His heavy-lidded eyes seem to reflect back at us uncounted moments of sorrow and disappointment in Llewyn’s life.  Llewyn comments, late in the film, that he’s just so tired, and it’s not simply a lack of a good night’s sleep in a real bed that he is lamenting.  Llewyn is a man who has been beaten down, and Mr. Isaac smartly underplays the role, finding a million quiet ways to show us the heartache that practically pours out of this man at every moment.  This film wouldn’t work if Mr. Isaac didn’t sell his performance, and man does he do a flawless job.  It’s terrific work.

Though this film rests squarely on Oscar Isaac’s shoulders, the corners of Llewyn’s world are brought to life by a wonderful array of supporting performers.  Carrie Mulligan and Justin Timberlake play Jean and Jim, a folk-singing duo who are friendly with Llewyn.  Well, Jim is friendly.  When the film opens, Jean is tremendously pissed at Llewyn, not just for his general screw-up nature that lands him, constantly, on their couch, but also because it looks like Llewyn has gotten her pregnant.  I really love both Ms. Mulligan and Mr. Timberlake in this film — I would gladly watch a whole Jean and Jim spin-off film.        Adam Driver pops up for a few minutes as a cowboy-hat-wearing friend of Jim’s, with whom Llewyn participates in a recording, and Mr. Driver is very, very funny in his brief role.  (The Coen Brothers — or their casting agent — must be big fans of Lena Dunham’s Girls, because not only does Mr. Driver appear in the film, but so too does his Girls co-star Alex Karpovsky!)  I loved seeing Star Trek’s Ethan Phillips appear as Llewyn’s one well-off friend, an Upper West Side-dwelling intellectual whose dinner party Llewyn makes a real mess of at one point in the film.  As with all of the smaller supporting roles in the film, Mr. Phillips takes what could, in lesser hands, have been something of a caricature and instead brings life and warmth into the role.  Perennial Coen Brothers favorite John Goodman appears late in the film as a rather rude jazz musician with whom Llewyn shares a ride to Chicago.  The other occupant of that vehicle is Garrett Hedlund as the almost-silent “Johnny Five.”  Mr. Hedlund has headlined some big movies these past few years (such as Tron: Legacy), and he has more life and humor in this brief, near-silent role than he did in some of his lead roles.  Credit the Coen Brothers for their great directing.  Those scenes in the car with Isaac, Hedlund, and Goodman are among the best in the film.  I also have to praise F. Murray Abraham, who only appears in one scene but is absolutely perfect as the big-time Chicago club-owner for whom Llewyn has to perform in an attempt to land a new gig (and, possibly, better management for himself than his elderly agent).  I love all of those characters, and they each flesh out different aspects of Llwyn’s life and world.

Then, of course, we get to the music.  There is a lot of fantastic music in the film, some of it newly written for the film and some classic songs.  Most of this music is performed by Llewyn and the other characters in the film.  The music is the beating heart of this film, which is perfectly appropriate for a film that brings us into the mind and heart of a musician.  In particular, I have been captivated by the rendition of “Fare Thee Well,” as performed by Llewyn and his former partner Mike.  That song was used as the soundtrack for the film’s magnificent trailer.  (That trailer, by the way, was one of the best trailers I have seen in years, and a primary reason why I was so eager to see this film.  I am pleased to say that the film delivers on the artistry and heartbreak promised by that trailer.  The trailer’s only flaw is that it spoils a detail from Llewyn’s past that the film actually keeps hidden until fairly late in the game.  Luckily, I had totally forgotten that beat from the trailer, so I was able to enjoy the moment in the movie unspoiled.)  This is a movie whose soundtrack album I will be eagerly tracking down ASAP.

The Coen Brothers play an interesting trick with the film’s opening and closing scenes.  What at first I thought was a clever little twist to the chronology of the narrative was actually, upon reflection, a fascinating encapsulation of Llewyn’s journey, or should I say his non-journey.  The film doesn’t actually move forward in time at all between its start and its finish, and in many ways nor does Llewyn.  It’s hard to see any ways in which Llewyn has grown or changed at all from the events chronicled in the film — and what a refreshingly rare narrative choice that is, by the way, for a movie! — and I love the way the opening and closing of the movie mirrors that.

Watching Inside Llewyn Davis is like looking into an open wound, and I don’t know how anyone who has ever tried to make art could find it anything less than devastating.  There are a million little moments that ring so powerfully true to everyone who has tried to push that Sisyphean boulder up the hill.  I walked out of this film feeling on the one hand terribly depressed by what I had seen, but also enlivened by the potency of the art that was on display in the film.  Inside Llewyn Davis is a sad film, but it’s filled by so many wonderful characters who, despite all of life’s burdens and struggles, are so vibrantly alive.  It’s a wonderful combination of great actors and the Coen Brother’s strong, confident hands as writers and directors.  This is a film that, despite its heavy subject matter, I am eager to revisit so that I can better soak in all of its details, all of the corners of this wonderfully fleshed out world.  I am dazzled by the artistry of the Coen Brothers in bringing this story to life, and to the enormous sympathy they show, in their filmmaking, for the struggle to create art.  (Even if — or should I say, especially if — some of those men and women who create art are far, far from perfect.)  This is a phenomenal film, and a real highlight of this Oscar-movie end-of-the-year season for me.

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