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Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Directed by: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Premise: Set in 1961, a struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac) navigates the music scene.

What Works: Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the better entries in the Coen Brother’s filmography, at least in a while. When the Coens are at their best, such as in The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou, and True Grit, they create memorable characters who speak snappy dialogue and their films typically possess an idiosyncratic, non-Hollywood tone. Inside Llewyn Davis shares many of those traits but in many respects the Coens restrain their more eccentric tendencies. The result is a film that is much more nuanced than virtually anything else in their filmography. Inside Llewyn Davis is also a much more sensitive picture than the Brothers have typically made. The Coens have frequently demonstrated a cynical regard for their characters; the sense of scorn and ridicule is very palatable in many of the Coen Brother’s films. But the regard for the characters of Inside Llewyn Davis is much softer. The people of this film are difficult, especially the title character, but they are also allowed a sense of humanity that differentiates this picture from the Coen’s other work. Oscar Isaac stars in the title role and Isaac is very good. The character is not written to be very sympathetic; he is frequently vulgar, bitter, and irresponsible. But Isaac comes across so genuine that he is constantly watchable. Isaac is also notable for his musical performances. He sings folk-music throughout the film and he is very good at it, providing the right amount of skill and soulfulness so that the audience can recognize the character’s potential and yet not see him as a prodigy. The film also features notable supporting performances by Carey Mulligan and John Goodman. Mulligan is an actress who is typically cast in serious dramatic roles but in this film she demonstrates an aptitude for comedy. John Goodman, a staple of the Coen Brother’s films, plays a washed up jazz musician and although he does not get to do much, Goodman brings a lot to the part and to the movie.

What Doesn’t: As is often the case in the Coen Brother’s films, Inside Llewyn Davis is not very emotionally engaging. That is partly a result of their storytelling style. Like many of the Coen’s other pictures, the narrative is very episodic. The film does not obey standard storytelling conventions; Llewyn Davis does not have an ultimate goal to accomplish and the film does not proceed in the way narratives typically do. The rejection of narrative form is an acceptable thing to do but it handicaps the possibility of creating empathy. Audiences come to understand and identify with the characters of a story by being privy to their struggles and we are emotionally swept up in the escalation of the conflict. The audience of Inside Llewyn Davis is witness to the title character’s challenges but the film is very meandering. The narrative is not leading anywhere and it does not convey a sense of escalation. One event follows another but they are not connected. The wistfulness of the movie is part of its point. Inside Llewyn Davis is not about success. It’s a story about failure but more specifically it is a story about the struggle. The Coens, ever the contrarians, don’t give into the Hollywood ending. That is the point of their movie. For that reason, the detached and apparently random qualities of Inside Llewyn Davis deserve a pass although they will make this film less accessible to a mainstream audience.

Bottom Line: Inside Llewyn Davis is a dark and meditative film and it does not convey the optimism that Hollywood typically provides for audiences. That’s going to make this film a tough sell for a lot of viewers but it is also what makes Inside Llewyn Davis such a strong film.

Episode: #474 (January 19, 2014)