Over the years the Coen Brothers have used setting, music, and tone to tell a variety of tales. Lacking the broad comedic strokes of Burn After Reading or the darker undertones of No Country for Old Men and their True Grit remake, the brothers’ latest is a more straightforward and personal character study of life of a struggling artist. Thinking over their filmography you can say the Coens have produced funnier, stranger, more disturbing, and perhaps even more memorable films, but this immersive drama ranks as one of their best.
Set primarily in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis follows the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a known and liked (or at least tolerated) folk singer in his small circle and a real son of a bitch to nearly ever single person he knows. Over the film’s 105-minute running-time we witness Davis nomadically travel with his guitar, a carton of unsold records, and a friend’s cat as his only prized possessions.
With no home or job to call his own, the musician is often at the whim of those who have pity on him (or can at least put up with him for a night or two). Davis’ friends include other musicians Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), his upscale friends (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), and a variety of people he will meet and take journeys with over the course of the film including Garrett Hedlund, John Goodman, and a cat that tries to escape his clutches more than once.
While attempting to run away from his problems, which include his lack of funds, a career going nowhere, and accidentally impregnating his friends’ difficult girlfriend (Mulligan), the musician with shuffle hitherto and yon, even journeying to Chicago with a pair of men he doesn’t know in hopes of finding the elusive big chance that has so obviously passed him by. Given the nature of the character the storyline doesn’t really have much in terms of big plot points or a wide-sweeping arc. For Davis, and the film, it truly is the journey (and not the destination) that matters.
Not since Once have I seen a film that so perfectly blends its combination of beautiful music with a strong storytelling to craft. Oscar Isaac and the cast of characters the the Coens surround him with truly inhabit the Greenwich Village scene that has a lived-in but cold feel that fits both the character and the journey that he refuse to let anyone take with him.
Relying on great music, great camera work, a terrific lead performance, and several memorable supporting roles from the variety of odd characters Davis interacts with, Inside Llewyn Davis is both a tremendously enjoyable film and an example of what the Coens can accomplish when not relying so heavily on what have become their usual bag of tricks (aside from Goodman’s small role, which I thought was one of the few weak pieces of the story).
Although I’d definitely classify it as a drama (no matter what the Golden Globes may say), the film has some strong dark comedic touches that, along with the great tunes, will keep a smile on your face. What could easily have been a depressing journey of an unlikable character going nowhere fast is turned into a mesmerizing slice of life of a complicated artist and his odd friends who I would certainly have spent far more than just 105 minutes with.