A LITTLE TOO INSIDE
By Carl Kozlowski
During the course of making 18 films over 30 years, writing and directing brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have introduced audiences to an array of imaginative characters—from The Dude in The Big Lebowski and Marge Gunderson in Fargo to Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men and H.I. and Edwina McDunnough in Raising Arizona.
In their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, the brothers have created perhaps their most realistic character study yet in a struggling singer trying to make it in New York during the folk explosion of the 1960s.
Impressively made but more solemn than entertaining, the film opens in almost documentary fashion, with Davis (brilliantly portrayed by Oscar Isaac) performing a full song in a smoky club. The effect is mesmerizing, with the Coens and their ace cinematographer Roger Deakins settling into the groove amid the gritty details of the audience and their surroundings. They literally make viewers feel as though they are in the room, transported across time to Greenwich Village.
As soon as he’s done with his tune, Davis is told to step into an alley. Someone’s there to see him. Once outside, he’s instantly punched and kicked by a mysterious redneck who then dashes off in a car after warning Davis to not mock the other performers. At this point, we immediately become aware that Davis is not only talented, but also a self-absorbed jerk.
That defining personality trait is the focus of much of the film, with Davis bouncing from one couch to another across the city while subtly manipulating people for dinner, a drink or an easy one-night stand. However, he learns that he’s gotten the live-in girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) of fellow singer and friend (Justin Timberlake) pregnant, that he’s lost the cat of his biggest benefactor and that his gigs and money are drying up ever since his former singing partner committed suicide. Davis soon finds himself grasping at straws, eventually taking a random road trip that brings him into contact with a string of strangers, among them a mysterious man who seems to be on the verge of dying at any moment (Coen Brother favorite John Goodman in another scene-stealing turn).
I won’t give away much more of what happens. Building a coherent string of events that add up to a dramatic payoff isn’t the point in this film. It’s more a collection of events, occasionally funny but mostly sad, which add up to a rich depiction of a long-gone era during which musicians actually played real instruments and wrote and sang songs that had some intellectual depth.
Rather, much like music itself, Davis grabs you emotionally. While it’s centered around a guy who seems like a real jerk much of the time, it also manages to make him sympathetic at the moments in which his dreams are most in danger of being crushed. It is there—in the depiction of the indomitable artistic spirit, the irrational yet inexorable drive within all artists to succeed, even in the face of failure—that the movie finds its quiet power.
Packed with affecting music, strong acting, stunning cinematography and a unique sense of place, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the most intriguing movies of the year. But the film as a whole is just like its title character: easy to admire for its rich display of talent, but hard to love.