Long story short: A film of heartbreaking depth and wonderful music, Inside Llewyn Davis is a picture of an artist conceived by actual artists—a perfect combination.
Inside Llewyn Davis will remind you of: Bound for Glory, Barton Fink, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Crazy Heart, A Serious Man
Review: Once again Joel and Ethan Coen have tapped into the clockwork of life itself and made something beautiful that may not necessarily be so. Inside Llewyn Davis is a portrait of an artist in 1961 Greenwich Village, the melting pot of the burgeoning folk music scene that birthed balladeers like Bob Dylan. The film takes us there, following one talented, needy, couch-surfing folk singer as he tries to survive using the only tool he owns: his guitar. It's a beautifully written re-telling of history, a finely acted heartbreaking struggle, and a profound new chapter in Coen lore.
The Coens provide further proof they've mastered the poetry of film. Inside Llewyn Davis combines their signature mordant sense of humor with a rhythmic mastery of writing and editing. The cast brings it to life. There's a cadence to each line delivery. This is Coenese, the language of the directors and it's found in all their films. Somehow though, the effect is multiplied because the subject matter explores creative genesis. As in Barton Fink, the Coens use their own method to dissect an artist—probing "the life of the mind." Barton stays close to home, investigating a writer, while Llewyn Davis explores how a folk singer is made.
The folk singer under the microscope is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a formerly successful New York troubadour who's fallen on hard times. He's not getting royalties from his one successful record; his partner committed suicide; and he has to go begging for gigs at The Gaslight Cafe and for places to sleep at night.
The film opens with Llewyn on stage. Clouded in smoke, accompanied only by his guitar, he's at peace. It's a romantic vision and a we immediately understand the lure of the art form. The Coens convey the beauty of the era and the music through this one man. It's New York. It's winter, but for the time he's on stage, Llewyn has a home and more, a family in the audience around him. Isaac, for his part, sings all Llewyn's songs and embodies the world-weariness of the struggling singer in a virtuoso performance.
What breaks our hearts is Llewyn's life off-stage. He's homeless and too proud to give up his career for something more stable like the Merchant Marine. The Coens don't take pity on him. In their matter-of-fact way, they take the opposite approach. Life is hard for an artist and especially so for one with "a higher purpose" as Llewyn believes. It's this formula, in fact, that creates great art. To become the singer he wants to be, Llewyn must suffer. His struggle is biblical. He discovers he may have impregnated his friend Jim's (Justin Timberlake) girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan). He loses another friend's cat, and later, he endures abuse at the hands of a blowhard (John Goodman) on a roadtrip to Chicago. To top it off, his ex-girlfriend never had the abortion she claimed she did. Llewyn may not be Job, but he's the Greenwich Village equivalent.
For all his problems, Llewyn marches on. The Chicago trip is a chance to impress a producer at the Gate of Horn. Life is full of hardships, but also opportunities and, like life, the Coens reveal nothing. Each event in Llewyn's world unfolds with staggering unpredictability. If anything, the film defies expectations. Through it all, we get to know Llewyn intimately. We endure what he endures by his side and root for him through it all, even though he can't keep his mouth shut sometimes. It's easy to do because, through his music, we believe in him.
Arranged by T-Bone Burnett and featuring Isaac, Timberlake, Mulligan, and Adam Driver among others, the music of Inside Llewyn Davis becomes the heart of the film. It's the single most endearing thing about Llewyn. And Isaac is a marvel, showing a new side with each performance while never losing sight of the character. “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” he tells the crowd.
The Coen method enhances the story. In lesser hands, the film would likely plod along. It's proof how honed the writer/directors' are at their craft. Longer scenes are transitioned to via shorter ones, sometimes with only one line. On a subway, Llewyn sits holding a cat and the camera shows us their reflection in the glass as the kitty watches each stop zoom by—an exciting experience. It's the detail of the filmmaking that heightens the character study.
The details also enhance the film's ending, a conclusion that, again, recalls Barton Fink which has one of the best closing sequences in movie history. Without revealing too much, let's just say Llewyn manages to come full circle in his journey. It's a true culmination of everything that's preceded it and we're left with that glorious Coen Brothers feeling once again.