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DVD REVIEW: FTN reviews Inside Llewyn Davis

May 30th, 2014 by Irwin Fletcher Comments

Inside Llewyn Davis (15)

Directed by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan & John Goodman
Running time: 104 mins

Following a week in the life of a young folk singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. Guitar in tow, huddled against the unforgiving New York winter, he is struggling to make it as a musician against seemingly insurmountable obstacles – some of them of his own making.

The Coen Brothers never fail to impress and even their under-rated films are superior to baseline great reviewed films. They manage to drag the viewer through a modicum of emotions encompassing fear, joy, hate, hope, sorrow and contempt all within an hour and 45 minutes that feels more like 15 minutes. Inside Llewyn Davis is an intimate, well-executed and honest slice of life. The Coen brothers do all they can to avoid all the clichés that are usually in films of this genre. It features a humanistic, heartfelt performance by Oscar Isaac as the titular folk singer, arresting cinematography and a sharp, tight-fisted script by the brothers.

Based in Greenwich Village in the early sixties, when folk music had come into its own but is also ready to be usurped by more mainstream fare, Llewyn has no home, drifting from gig to gig and crashing on couch after couch as a matter of design; is vagrancy is his life’s plan? Llewyn is at turns a noble soul who exists for the sake of making the music he wants to make and a resentful twerp who mooches off friends just to sustain his unsustainable lifestyle.

The movie is only somewhat linear, with closing scenes mirroring opening scenes, and it is told entirely from Llewyn’s point of view. The Coen brothers masterfully alternate between Llewyn’s perspective and an outside perspective; this parallels the ambivalences of the alternating empathy and loathing that are directed toward him.

Llewyn is a complex multifaceted film. There are none of the usual clichés, such as a down-on-his-luck musician catching a lucky break or a bitter man having a quick change of heart. Llewyn is a self-tortured soul, but unlike caricatures of wandering folkies, he is at his centre a realist, albeit a prideful one.

He encounters an array of people on his travels ranging from the genuine (his singing friends Jim and Jean, played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) to the absurd (a rotund, blustery John Goodman) and a cat that travels with Llewyn – trying to get it back to its owner. The encounters with these genuine folk feel like normal encounters; with those of the more absurd feeling perfectly surreal, leaving an ambiguous feeling as to whether these were tangible concrete people or if the were imagined encounters through Llewyn himself.

Surprisingly, Justin Timbelake manages to pull off his role. Usually when Timerlake is cast in a film it constantly creates a sense of trepidation. People raved about his performance in David Fincher’s The Social Network, but in all honesty, he was definitely the weakest link with his lack of acting experience near ruining the movie. Perhaps it is due to the stellar direction that is at play by Ethan and Joel Coen in this film. Perhaps the beautiful cinematography shines a certain light on an otherwise unlikable person in the film realm. It’s evidently testament to the Coen Brothers and their ability to gauge the limitations of the talent they have at hand.

The music is beautiful and moving. Isaac himself performs Llewyn’s songs, with a sweet, vulnerable voice that offers a touch of soul to his otherwise-bleak surroundings. When Llewyn is really on, you can feel his pain leap right off the screen into your brain; when he appears to be going through the motions and not singing from his heart, you can feel the lack of depth that his intended audience also feels. It is a great performance by Isaac.

The Coens could have taken the plot line in any number of ways to give the viewer some foothold of hope that Llewyn may end up on the right track one day. Some casual viewers might miss that foothold as the script really forces the viewer to watch a man stuck in a static world where his own actions cause him to go nowhere, and that could be a frustrating world to inhabit for 90 minutes for some people.

Overall, it is a beautiful looking film about a man who creates his own obstructions in his life but it is an interesting journey, albeit a bleak one.

3 out of 5 Nerds

I'm an LA journalist who really lives for his profession. I have also published work as Jane Doe in various mags and newspapers across the globe. I normally write articles that can cause trouble but now I write for FTN because Nerds are never angry, so I feel safe.