NYFF 2013: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ a melodic cinematic pleasure that engages despite its acerbic anti-hero

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Inside Llewyn Davis
Written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
USA/France, 2013

The Coen Brothers return with Inside Llewyn Davis, a caustic yet affectionate glimpse into a struggling artist’s life during the folk music scene of the early ‘60s. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac of Drive) is a temperamental musician in Greenwich Village whose poor decision-making and an inability to connect to others outside of selfish reasons have landed him with little more than the clothes on his back. As we enter his story, the people he uses as crutches in life are losing patience with getting nothing in return for their kindnesses. Cold, starving but still hell bent on finding a way for his music to reach people, he keeps trudging on and playing for his dream. The film, an offbeat musing on the elusiveness of success, is a collaborative tour de force that is as wistfully moving with its sorrowful singing as it is hilariously adept at chronicling egotistical missteps.

The Coens try awfully hard to make Llewyn detestable for his selfishness, but it’s obvious that they revere talented entertainers who refuse to compromise their art or personal freedom. Their direction is smooth and measured regarding the film’s acerbic anti-hero. A cat has a recurring appearance that significantly mirrors the restless wanderer inside Llewyn but also calls attention to his complete lack of being able to adequately care for anything outside of himself. The dialogue alternates between styles: either pointedly deadpan or overtly enraged with a dark edge that keeps reminding us of how alone Llewyn has made himself and how much of an uphill battle he faces trying to get any positive recognition for his hard work. He’s to be admired for how he won’t settle for making meaningless music, but he appears deserving of some of his troubles for the callous way he takes the invaluable compassion of others for granted. When left to the streets, the wintertime chill bites back at his childish indignation with the grey, cold skies of New York quite impressively framing his mindset and reinforcing the content of the soundtrack. 

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Coen favorite John Goodman commandeers the film for a short time as Roland Turner, a seasoned performer on the road with Llewyn who verbally eviscerates the young man’s stagnant career, dwindling hopes and sad past. However scathing his comments, Goodman manages with sharp timing to be uproariously funny in his cruelness to Llewyn. One can see that he could be Llewyn in the future – still on the road and filled with contempt for everyone he meets. Justin Timberlake also adds some levity as Llewyn’s friend who’s making a comfortable living writing and performing catchy folk songs. He has all the positivity and amiability that Llewyn lacks. Oscar Isaac’s looks of exasperated condescension are priceless when paired with Goodman and Timberlake, who make the most of their all too brief appearances.

Carey Mulligan turns in a whirlwind performance full of ire and resentment toward a man who has brought her nothing but pain and an undesirable situation. This is far from her reticent and reserved appearances in Drive and Never Let Me Go but several notches down from the desperateness of Sissy in Shame. The extremity of her irate comments may seem over the top, but Llewyn’s lack of concern for her is telling of what she’s already been through with him and why she has to communicate so viciously.

Inside Llewyn Davis dexterously pairs the prickly wit of the main character with the stirring nature of skillfully arranged (with the help of the prolific T-Bone Burnett) and executed music. Isaac is a markedly talented musician that’s surprisingly allowed to play out songs in full. These long musical interludes fill in the gaps of emotional catharsis that Llewyn denies himself and others in the narrative. The arrogant vulnerability of Llewyn Davis is absorbed into the music and ends up adding a sullen yet feisty air to the heart-rending lyrics that give the movie a momentum which keeps us sincerely invested in seeing his story through.

– Lane Scarberry

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The New York Film Festival celebrates 51 years and runs from September 27 to October 13, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.

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