Inside Llewyn Davis
2013, R, 105 min. Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, Garrett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Stark Sands, Alex Karpovsky.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 20, 2013
Shot in winter grays with no warming ambers and the whiff of tuberculosis hanging around all the players, Inside Llewyn Davis is a chilly thing – a nominal comedy in brisk shivers. It’s set in Greenwich Village in the early Sixties, the same time Dylan was starting to make a name for himself, although the film only obliquely references the real-life stars of the day. (The title and color palette echo Inside Dave Van Ronk, the 1963 album by Van Ronk, nicknamed the Mayor of MacDougal Street, ground zero of the Sixties folk revival.)
Formerly part of a semi-successful duo act, the folk singer Llewyn Davis (Isaac) is forging ahead solo now, but his melancholic nature doesn’t bode well for his marketing prospects. Llewyn is down and very nearly out: Homeless and broke, he’s resorted to couch-surfing; he almost ruins a recording gig by unwittingly mocking the simpleton ditty to the songwriter’s face; and his best girl loathes him (granted, she’s his best friend’s wife). Llewyn is not a bad man, and when he sings, he’s an angel. But he’s also in pain and kind of an asshole – careless and contrarian – lost.
The Coen brothers nail the folk personas, all shiny-eyed and turtlenecked (beware their jaw snap when crossed), and the cold-bloodedness of its benefactors – the agents, record producers, and cafe proprietors. But this is an affectionate goosing, not a lampooning, of the era and the culture, energetically enacted by a tight troupe of scene-stealers, including John Goodman as a jazzbo in a Caesar bowl cut and the withering Carey Mulligan, playing a steely folk chanteuse (how she manages to be both dowdy and luminous is a mystery, or a miracle). Just as essential is the soundtrack, produced by T Bone Burnett with the Coens and performed by the actors, from the charming geegaw “Please Mr. Kennedy” to “Fare Thee Well,” a lament you’re certain to go home humming.
But Isaac, in his first top-billed role, is the star, slow-burning and hunch-shouldered, with a gentle, lulling singing voice and an-outer-boroughs-spiky speaking voice. Isaac is a handsome, not short man, but he’s filmed to seem stubby, as if prematurely ground down by life. His Llewyn is the spiritual (if shitheel) cousin to A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik, and Inside Llewyn Davis is just as doleful a film, if not quite as soul-stirring. In lesser pictures, the Coens have shown an awful mean streak, but here, as with A Serious Man, they take their title to heart: This is no outsider’s sneer, but a sincere tunneling inside a hurting human forever rolling the boulder up the hill – or, more aptly, chasing his own tail to the edge of collapse.
Early in the film, there is a storybook-magical scene, wherein a tabby cat rides the subway and peers over Llewyn’s shoulder, out the window. The cat, one imagines, is marveling at a new world for the pawing. The bitter rub of the film is that, no matter where Llewyn goes, it’s always the same damn thing, just a different area code. In a way, Llewyn does succeed in catching his tail. Squint, and you can almost see the bite marks – self-inflicted, naturally. (See "The Talented Mr. Isaac," Dec. 20, for our interview with Oscar Isaac.)