Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Written & Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

The Coen brothers are cinematic artists of the highest rank, and their films have infused the culture of America over the past twenty years, contributing such important classics as Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and The Big Lebowski. Their touch is special, bringing about a unique sense of humor along with an ability to pen sympathetic and interesting characters. Their films tend to run the gambit of popularity, from big star-studded releases to smaller, low-key releases, but their quality is never brought into question. Inside Llewyn Davis is sure to be a film considered by the Academy come time for awards season, and it has already received decent buzz. I, however, found less to attach myself to than I have in past films by the brothers Coen.

In a similar fashion to the lead character of their previous film A Serious Man, the Coens give us Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a depressed, lost young man living in Greenwich Village in the early 60s, amidst the budding folk scene. In fact, he is a songwriter himself, attempting to make it on his own after his musical partner, Mike, commits suicide (we never find out why). We follow Llewyn on his odyssey to find himself, and his footing in the world as a struggling musician. Never able to catch a break, he is oft lambasted by one of his many girl acquaintances, Jean (Carey Mulligan), ridiculed by a traveling partner (John Goodman), with whom he travels to Chicago seeking a change of scenery and a new start.

Llewyn Davis was a hard film at first for me to read. In true Coen brothers fashion it throws just enough of a wrench into the otherwise conventional story to create something special and contemplative. What we find with Llewyn is someone broken by life, begging for forgiveness and support. But what we also end up seeing is a fairly unsympathetic character. He surrounds himself with a support group he seems to take for granted. He gets help here and there. People are nice to him, in high spirits. Has Llewyn gone through his struggles? Absolutely, but he never stops to also count his blessings, which also gets him into even more trouble. His seemingly permanent stay in the doldrums is fueled by his ego and inability to see anything apart from his own troubles.

When first exiting the theater, I was left a bit cold because of this. It is a great looking film, photographed in light yet drab fashion by Bruno Delbonnel (who first caught my attention with his efforts on the 6th Harry Potter film). The glossy, dull colors emote the depression of Llewyn while at the same time highlighting the hope he seems not to see. For a man that cannot seem to catch a break, Oscar Isaac delivers a marvelous performance in the lead role. Not much else impressed me with the supporting roles, though the main focus of the film was always Isaac, whose musical performances also impressed. For that matter, the entire soundtrack of the film seemed quite brilliant with its ability to remain original and current while capturing the folk scene of the early 60s. The key track featuring Mulligan’s husband Marcus Mumford is a beautiful track.

Ultimately, I struggle to find a final stance on the film. There are beautiful elements, and the cryptic nature of the narrative, that slight variation to the story left me something to think about. Certainly what Davis needs to see is the forest from the trees, to count his blessings instead of his curses. And yet I felt emotionally empty, and somewhat unmoved upon exit from the theater. Was it a superbly made technical film, always, but I wonder whether it ever amounted to anything but depressing. Reflection as a whole has increased my appreciation of the latest Coen brothers offering, but in their brilliant history it does not seem to rank with their masterpieces upon first viewing. Yet the subtlety of the narrative tempts me back perhaps for a future reconsideration. Isaac at the very least is a revelation here.

*** – Good


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