Inside Llewyn Davis (United States, 2013)

December 06, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Inside Llewyn Davis Poster

A perusal of the Coen Brothers' filmography reveals a penchant for the offbeat and absurd. They almost never do anything conventional, which makes Inside Llewyn Davis surprising. A Valentine to late-'50s and early-'60s folk music (pre-Dylan), the movie offers a straightforward narrative and little of the Coens' typical quirkiness. Like O Brother, Where Art Thou, it's a music-centered affair and is likely envisioned as something that can transcend the screen. One could make a case that O Brother was more beloved as an album than a film, and the same could end up being true with Inside Llewyn Davis. Although the narrative and characters are accessible, the film will likely only play with strength in art houses - it's a little too meandering and dour for mainstream audiences.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer bumming his way around New York's Greenwich Village in 1961. Without a permanent place to lay his head and hardly more than a few coins to his name, he bounces from place-to-place with his guitar, seeming only to come alive when playing a song. Inside Llewyn Davis does nothing more ambitious than follow this character for a week, showing how he interacts with various other people, including fellow musicians Jean (Carey Mulligan), Jim (Justin Timberlake), and Al Cody (Adam Driver). His relationship with his sister is strained. He goes on a road trip to Chicago with Roland Turner (John Goodman) and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) that ends strangely. In the end, he has to face the choice that confronts artists of all stripes: continue struggling pursuing his current vocation or get a more stable job that offers steady work and an equally steady income.

The undisputed highlight of Inside Llewyn Davis for many will be the ten era-appropriate songs, all of which were performed live as they were filmed. As befits a celebration of folk music, the movie's tone is downbeat and, as their history indicates, the Coens aren't trapped by Hollywood conventions. This isn't a rags-to-riches story. There's no great moment of catharsis. In fact, the filmmakers openly flout mainstream expectations when they show a certain highway sign then proceed to ignore the location shown on it. Although the film as a whole is more straightforward than much of what the Coens produce, there are plenty of isolated moments that bear their hallmarks. The John Goodman character, for example, is pure Joel & Ethan. The same can be said of the antics with the cat(s). Those who enjoy the Coens for their offbeat penchant may not find it in abundance but neither is it absent.

The cast is an eclectic mix of unknowns and well-respected character actors. The "star power" (to the extent such a term applies) is provided by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, and John Goodman, with Mulligan and Goodman in particular leaving strong impressions in limited roles. The lead is played by little-known Oscar Isaac, whose understated portrayal is perfect for the role of a man emotionally disconnected from the world around him except when he's strumming his guitar and belting out the words to a lonely melody. Isaac, like Timberlake and Mulligan, does his own singing.

Inside Llewyn Davis could be considered "lesser Coen Brothers," although that's more a descriptor than a criticism. It's a pleasant enough film, and features its share of standout moments, but it won't be remembered alongside the siblings' great endeavors. Box office wise, it's likely to come in closer to their under-the-radar 2009 entry, A Serious Man, than their 2010 remake of True Grit. This is adult drama with an impeccable sense of period and a strong focus on character. With today's cinema sadly lacking in movies like this, it makes Inside Llewyn Davis all the more welcome, especially for those who care about the kind of music it honors.

Inside Llewyn Davis (United States, 2013)

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund
Screenplay: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel
U.S. Distributor: CBS Films
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2013-12-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1