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‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ ranks among the Coen Brothers’ best work


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Written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
USA, 2013

The folk music scene in New York City in the 1960s produced a legend in Bob Dylan, but he wasn’t first. It had been a fad for some time before him, enough that record labels and radio stations had already taken note. It’s entirely possible that there was a Dylan before Dylan, a great talent who didn’t find his opportunity or his audience. The Coen Brothers’ new film Inside Llewyn Davis posits the existence of such a man, and he may well be the most interesting character they’ve ever created.

Oscar Issac plays Llewyn Davis, who is bouncing from friend’s couch to friend’s couch while singing for practically nothing in local coffee shops and collecting no royalties on his records from his agent. He’s in the shadow of a much more commercial husband-and-wife duo played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, a relationship made all the more complicated by the fact that Llewyn is sleeping with her and has gotten her pregnant.

The storytelling here is mostly episodic; even the pregnancy storyline doesn’t get a lengthy amount of play. As in A Serious Man and some of their other films, the Coens don’t just reject three-act story structure but openly mock it (Llewyn’s encounter with his father might seem like it’s going to be some sort of climax at first, but it doesn’t turn out that way). This is frustrating because Mulligan and Timberlake don’t get enough screen time for their levels of talent, but it’s not as though the Coens are pulling some kind of bait-and-switch here. There’s only one important actor in this film, and the title tells us who he is.

To that end, Isaac is remarkable. Utterly unrecognizable to those who saw him in Drive, tasked with looking like an even bigger musical talent than Justin Timberlake, he delivers in every way that the role demands. An interesting aspect of this film is that the most traumatic event in Llewyn’s life doesn’t happen on-screen; it took place years before, and the resulting pain keeps coming back in new ways via Isaac’s performance.

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Isaac performed most of his own music, which is the most impressive aspect of his work because the music electrifies this picture. In terms of tone, this film is not so different from A Serious Man, with a put-upon protagonist at the mercy of a random and lonely world. But where A Serious Man had the minutiae of Judaism as the connective tissue between its episodes, Inside Llewyn Davis has the very best music of any Coen film (yes, better than the immense hit soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Everything from West Virginia country to something as pop as the real-life Timberlake could have been “folk” at the time; it’s all here, and each new style is exemplified by a nearly perfect performance.

As with more than a few Coen films, Inside Llewyn Davis may prove frustrating for people devoted to traditional payoffs to their stories. It’s not entirely clear what Davis has gained or lost by the end of the film, nor what the audience has gained or lost by watching him. It’s an emotional hand grenade of a film, where its uncommon power will come hours or even days after seeing it. And even if that power never comes, the stellar music will make it a hell of a good time.

— Mark Young


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