Inside Llewyn Davis (*****)
Running Time: 104 minutes
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake.
(QFT Press Preview 21/01/2014)
THE Coen brothers truly take you inside Llewyn Davis in their new film with an intimate character portrait of a frustrated musician. It’s a wistful film about holding onto dreams and losing relationships, where everyday survival is a struggle in itself- and who can’t relate to that?
They’ve long been accepted as one of the standards by which screenwriting excellence is set, however, it took some time for the Coen’s to be rightfully recognized among the great modern auteurs. As things stand they’re second only to Auguste and Louis Lumière in the fraternal cinema legacy stakes- and the Lumières aren’t about to add to their legacy anytime soon. So it’s with a tinge of irony, that the new film of cinema’s most famous duo is a portrait of loneliness, specifically that of an artist.
Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis, an undoubtedly talented folk singer who has come to an impasse in his career. The film follows Llewyn through a random series of misadventures over the course of a week in 1961, taking in a multitude of couches in Greenwich Village, New York and one disastrous road trip to Chicago. Isaac gives the performance of his career so far, keeping the audience invested in his character with an honest humanity and a discontented frustration that bubbles barely beneath the surface- he never asks for the audience’s sympathy and never overplays the emotion- and so it’s easy to identify with a character whose flaws are so apparent.
The films of the Coen brothers are nothing if not packed with great supporting roles, and Inside Llewyn Davis features a fine cast. Stark Sands is a comedic treat as the straightforward Troy Nelson; while Carey Mulligan brings a dramatic weight to the film, as well as simultaneously delivering some of the film’s best insults, in her role as Jean. Special praise has to be reserved for Coen brothers regular, John Goodman, who has been on something of a career roll of late. Playing cantankerous jazz musician Roland Turner, Goodman literally chews up the other cast members around him and spits them out. Okay, not literally.
The great thing about Goodman’s role in the film is, and this is typical of the Coens, it’s not simply a great character with over the top dialogue thrown in to liven things up- Roland Turner is a character Llewyn meets on his road trip to Chicago, which is a very important part of the film. It provides an escape from the familiar surroundings of New York, but it proves that Llewyn can’t escape himself and what starts out as an enjoyable episode turns dark as the Coens lay their main character threadbare with the kind of bravery few filmmakers have.
The Coens have also orchestrated another fine soundtrack to add to their collection. The film opens with Llewyn performing in the Gaslight Cafe in New York, isolated in close-up, his performance stands alone. Isaac delivers some tremendous moments musically and the film provides a lot of insight in general to the life of performers, but it’s tone is always bittersweet- this is music to reminisce, but ultimately to help you forget.
Inside Llewyn Davis is perhaps the Coens most intimate film. We fall asleep and wake up with Llewyn and, in spite of him in many ways, we can’t help but care. Through the ruinous personal relationships, the career rejections, the bitter cold we’re there with Llewyn, fighting from the inside out, projecting ourselves onto his constant cat companions- and such identification, even of the feline kind, represents a real triumph for the filmmakers.
Review by Richard Davis