06 December 2013

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis


Making it as a professional musician comes with its own set of challenges, namely finding that first big break. Millions chase dreams of playing music professionally, but only a precious few get to realize them. Faceless and forgotten by time, nearly all of these strugglers never get their fifteen minutes of fame.

There are the Bob Dylans and Jimi Hendrixes of the music world and then there is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). He lacks a marketable name, a shadow of mystery and the air of cool those other counter-culture artists have. The only distinctive thing about him is the black cloud that trails him everywhere he goes.

Inside Llewyn Davis follows Llewyn over the course of a week on the music scene in 1960s Greenwich Village. He carries all his possessions on his person, guitar in hand, bumming it on friend's couches around the Five Boroughs. He's staying with fellow singers Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), but that arrangement comes to a halt when Jean delivers Llewyn a hand-written note with the message "I'm pregnant."



Left with little cash to remedy this situation, Llewyn seeks any and all alternatives to get his struggling career and life back in order before he hangs it up and serves as a merchant marine again. Eager to get out of New York City for a while, he hitches a ride with very outspoken jazz veteran Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his near-mute driver Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) on the road to Chicago, where he hopes for a career boost from tastemaker Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham).

Lovingly crafted recreation of the folk scene and the music that made it great, you want to crawl into the New York City onscreen and just roll around it for a while. Davis strikes many he comes across as a prick, but he is just one of many to arrive on the scene as the Eisenhower era of picket fences and Ward and June Cleaver will soon transform into the counter-culture the late sixties is known for.

The Coen's lament on the state of life-long dreams is a haunting one, sometimes enough is just not enough, and fame comes with more than its fair share of good luck. Llewyn has more obstacles he contends with than most, though almost all are entirely of his own making: trading royalties for quick cash, alienating those who let him in and just generally being unpleasant.

The chronological order of the film is a joke in of itself, playing with the notion that regardless of Llewyn's perserverance, he will always end up in exactly the same place, but the joke isn't at his expense. It is just one of those cosmic truths that proves itself true all too often in reality.

Inside Llewyn Davis doesn't fit the typically fatalistic ouevre of the Coens, yet it is filled with their trademark sense of humor. The pair were on a dark kick that started with No Country for Old Men and continued through Burn After Reading and True Grit, but this return to the quirky character pieces they're famous for feels like a warm blanket after trudging through the snow all day. The humor is kept low-key to avoid any distracting tonal dissonance that comes with slapstick, yet every eccentricity and oddity is punctuated with a laugh.

Oscar Isaac may feel like a newcomer, but he has cut his teeth on parts in Sucker Punch and Drive. Isaac's past with singing and guitar playing lends a natural feel to the titular lead, and while these performances don't lend themselves to awards consideration, Isaac does more than is asked of him, illiciting sympathy from the audience even when he is at his worst. Early Coens' movies appeared to dislike the characters central to the plot, but there is a tenderness shown toward Llewyn and those quiet moments that solidify his tale.

Carey Mulligan nails the part of a woman knocked up and unhappy with the circumstances with each narrow-eyed glare and unkind word shared at every passing second ("Everything you touch turns to shit, like King Midas' idiot brother,” is a particular highlight). Rounding out the cast is Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver and Coen regular John Goodman, returning after a hiatus since 2003's O Brother Where Art Thou.

Serving as cinematographer is Bruno Delbonnel instead of regular Roger Deakins. Delbonnel sets the picture in soft focus and uses a stark color palette, made up of blues and grays along with the harsh New York winter frost over the images onscreen.

An intimate, yet funny portrait of a man at odds with himself and the world around him, the Coens may have just created one more classic to be paired along with Fargo. Considering their body of work, it is high praise indeed when I say that it's one of the Coen's finest pictures to date.