As a semi-professional film critic (shut up I am!) I have always tried to maintain an air of objectivity. That objectivity tends to fall apart a little bit when it comes to the Coen brothers. Like Bruce Springsteen or Bioware, something about the Coen brothers just clicks with me. It’s not that they haven’t made movies I consider…let’s say not good (coughHudsuckerProxycough) but when they’re on point, almost no one has the ability to get inside my head like they do. This, combined with their quite frankly jaw dropping surplus of talent and skill, has meant they’ve been a staple of my top 10 movies of whatever year, basically as long as I’ve been doing them. Hell they topped the list the first time I made the list (in 2007, with No Country for Old Men). And while Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t quite the equal of No Country, it’s a damned brilliant movie on its own.
As with many Coen brothers movies, the plot is rather hard to describe, especially without spoiling, but I’ll do my best. Oscar Isaac has the lead as Llewyn Davis, a pretentious self involved beatnik (think hipster with no money and you’re most of the way there) living in New York City and trying (and failing) to make a living as a folk musician. The plot moves along from there, discovering that his married female friend he slept with is pregnant, caring for the cat of the family that let him stay with them (and followed him out), and generally trying to make money off his career.
One of the things that sets the Coen brothers apart from their contemporaries (aside from the aforementioned massive amounts of talents, and their occasional descents into weirdness for the sake of weirdness) is how specifically American their movies are. In an era where movies, especially the weird artistic movies the Coens specialize in, are becoming more and more globalized, the Coens have repeatedly made movies that are very specific to their home country, and Inside Llewyn Davis continues that trend, with a mood and soundtrack that effortlessly evoke the feeling of the folk music scene in the 60s.
Of course it wouldn’t be a movie about folk music without folk songs, and it certainly delivers in that regard. Almost all of the music is performed live by the actors, and they all sing beautifully, especially Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake in a secondary role. The film’s only original song, Please Mr. Kennedy is, despite being mostly a comedy song, well written and quite entertaining. The rest of the songs (a variety of folk standards and songs from the same era) are well chosen and help the atmosphere of the early 60s that this movie is trying to evoke.
Of course there’s always the chance that audiences might be turned off from the story due to how it treats its lead character and his arc. Much like the similarly brilliant A Serious Man, many of the characters are unlikable and the movie’s tone, while often darkly comic, is often dark and bleak. This doesn’t bother me, I happen to like bleak tone and dark endings (I loved Cosmopolis for example) but if that sort of thing damages your ability to enjoy a movie, you might have trouble with this one. You can’t say the movie doesn’t commit to this tone fully though, with a washed out color palette that and dark lighting.
As with a lot of movies of this nature, much of the movie is on the actors to carry and the Coens continue to cast their movies perfectly. Oscar Isaac is excellent at selling how much of a self-involved douchebag his character is, but also at making his moments of self reflection feel real and engaging, even when (and perhaps especially) when they’re entirely silent. Carey Mulligan seems to be a darker, more flawed, take on her character from Drive, which is amusing given that Isaac was in Drive too. John Goodman excels in an extremely minor role and…well I know people would like me to comment on Justin Timberlake (because we’re still curious about whether he’s going to be a good actor) but he only has like 2 scenes where he’s not singing, so it’s hardly worth it.
Since I mentioned how much the Coen brothers manage to get inside my head, it’s entirely possible that you might want to ignore my opinion. If it helps, I’d probably feel more guilty about my unconditional love for them if they weren’t so consistently brilliant. And I can, for the record, recognize when they make a bad movie, and they didn’t this time. Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the best and most memorable movies of the year, and if you can find a theater that’s playing it, you should definitely see it.
Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he fully expects the cat in this movie to get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
– fantastic script, direction and acting
– unique story and angle
– great soundtrack
– bleak outlook might alienate some viewers
– possibly unsatisfying ending