We all know that self-centered jerk who is never malevolent, but selfish and petty. The protagonist from the Coen Brothers’ latest film is exactly that person. Llewyn Davis can’t quite get his life in order and takes it out on those around him, which makes him instantly unlikable and utterly relatable. The Coens have crafted a slice of life tale of a folk singer in the 1960’s that rambles and detours as much as the folk music genre itself.
There is little to say about the plot itself of Inside Llewyn Davis. The film meanders and roams through Llweyn’s life with no overarching story to tell, yet the story feels complete at the end. Llewyn Davis is a New York City folk singer that can’t break though into the world of paid artist. He had a partner at one time and his new solo act can’t get traction anywhere. He is reaching the point where he has to choose a new field or a life of sleeping on the couches of various people. He has alienated all of his friends and family to the point where tolerance of him is diminishing. His life is slipping away.
The Coens have long been masters of making tightly controlled and almost literary films. From Greek mythology to modern quasi-westerns the Coens have a unique ability to bring words to the screen. They have a history of using sparse visuals and static landscapes to bring the fullness of the language to the forefront and Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception. It is mostly through words (and songs in this case) that the Coens are able to weave their narrative. The visuals maintain their style, but are always there to serve the story. There is also a stark plainness to the setting for Llewyn Davis which completely feels like 1961 New York City. Everything feels authentic. Not only is nothing out of place, but the Coens don’t draw attention to things that detract from the story. While another recent film, American Hustle, took every opportunity to remind us that the story took place in the 70’s Inside Llewyn Davis’s 1960’s fades into the background where the scenery is supposed to be. It is the sign of a filmmaker that is confidant in the material.
First time lead actor Oscar Isaac is brilliant as Davis. His performance, both acting and singing, is extraordinarily confident. That confidence in his abilities is also shared by the directors as he is in nearly every scene. It is a credit to Davis’s talent that he is never overshadowed by a strong supporting cast of Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman who all turn in strong performances as well. As Coen brothers movies are typically far short of blockbusters, I hope enough people see this film so that Oscar Davis continues to get the kinds of roles he deserves.
Inside Llewyn Davis is not the strongest film to come from the Coens. That being said, it’s better than most other movies. It has strong and well realized characters and has been made with the confidence of two directors that are sure of what they are doing. There are no wasted scenes in Coen movies. Oscar Isaac is superb with a talent for making Llewyn Davis sympathetic as he’s being a prick. This is a strong film from people who were sure of the story they wanted to tell. Grade: A-