Editor’s note: Our review of Inside Llewyn Davis originally ran during this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens today in limited theatrical release.
The eighth In Competition banner for the Coen Brothers at the Cannes Film Festival is their first in six years, since their eventual Best Picture Oscar winner No Country for Old Men. Though there isn’t a chance for the intrepid filmmaking duo to repeat the same success here, the feeling coming out of Inside Llewyn Davis is that the brothers would not have it any other way. Indeed, while terming their latest work the worst thing they’ve put out since The Ladykillers might send alarm bells ringing, when you consider their body of work since — No Country, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man and True Grit — it begins to seem not quite so bitter a pill to swallow.
Tackling the New York folk music scene of the 1960s, the Coens’ latest sees the titular character (Oscar Isaac) stumbling through the city by the seat of his pants, trying to make it as a musician in an ostensibly difficult niche. Hopping from sofa to sofa, LLewyn drifts through life, propelled almost singularly by a desire to meet music maestro Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) while his personal life, namely a surprise pregnancy by way of occasional partner Jean (Carey Mulligan), crumbles around him.
This is without question the most atypical Coen Brothers film of the last decade — certainly their least funny and for a time their most sentimental. To give the directors their due, they have committed solely to immerising us in the Greenwhich Village folk scene, opening with an uninterrupted rendition from Llewyn, ahead of several more musical interludes that feature throughout. While these lengthy asides give the film less to say over its 105-minute runtime, they lend it an undeniable soulfulness, and the performance by Isaac — an actor until now best known for playing Standard in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive — is in this stead a remarkable star-maker.
From start to finish, there’s a lack of narrative focus that feels somewhat appropriate to the meandering nature of Llewyn’s life, as he thinks only in the present — at one point turning down a royalties contract for a quick payday — and ultimately comes to envision nothing but failure for himself. Smartly, the Coens do not make a picaresque hero out of Llewyn. They pragmatically depict him in all of his complexity, at times a pompous, insufferable artisan, and at other times a likeable young man clearly still shaken by the suicide of his singing partner and brother, who threw himself from the George Washington Bridge at some time prior.
This is only exacerbated by some unexpected news that in most movies would cause the protagonist to rethink his station in life and probably end up reconciling that issue. In typical Coen form, though, that is not the case here; while hints are dropped throughout that Llewyn might finally face up to his responsibilities, another typically open-ended, inconclusive climax leaves audiences to decide much for themselves. In as much as the film is sentimental, it avoids a cloying close that would have compromised the water-tight character development up to that point.
Much of the joy of Inside Llewyn Davis is the array of colourful characters he meets during his travels; we begin with Jean, a cantankerous, perhaps hormonal young woman who blames LLewyn alone for her pregnancy, infuriated by the prospect of having to terminate the baby when it theoretically could also belong to her more robust lover and singing partner, Jim (Justin Timberlake). As we’ve come to expect from the actress, her American accent is virtually faultless, and she knocks the role out of the park.
When Llewyn hits the road, he comes across two like-minded Jazz musicians played by Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman, the former of whose acting stock continues to rise (albeit in a near-wordless performance here) while the latter, a Coen regular, breathes plenty of life into the film even if this is arguably its most worthless segment. Indeed, at this point Llewyn Davis transitions into a full-on road movie for a time — though the vehicle of travel is not always car — losing its way somewhat. Yet this section does easily boast the film’s best visuals, courtesy of Director of Photography Bruno Delbonnel, teaming with the directors for the first time.
Inevitably, it all comes down to Llewyn finally meeting with Grossman, played superbly by Abraham, a respected character actor in a brief but stirring role — though, typically, this is not an A-to-B story of success. Right to the end, Llewyn is a troubled, even at times obnoxious figure, frustrated as so many of us are at the brick wall standing in the way of success, and perhaps no truer is it than in the artistic fields that talent (of which LLewyn undeniably has plenty) can only take you so far. There’s no uproarious catharsis, and although this is a rare Coen brothers film that might have actually suited a neat and tidy ending, it’s likely you’ll be thinking about the final images long after the credits roll.
If something of a chamber piece compared to their recent work, Inside Llewyn Davis will surely find a comfortable following, even if by its sheer nature and virtues it is less about something. There’s never any doubt that the project came off as any diffrent than the brothers envisioned it, and the musical interludes throughout, any of which could scoop Oscar nominations next year, are simply delightful. While it might be their most slight and unfocused effort in almost ten years, given their corpus of work therein, it’s difficult to feel too short-changed about that.
This is very much the film directors get to make once they’ve won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and few will argue that Ethan and Joel haven’t earned it.
The Upside: Wonderful musical numbers propel a compelling character study driven by an array of superb performances — most of all Isaac, who should see big offers come rolling in as a result.
The Downside: It’s their most vague and unassuming film in years, which coming off the back of big-hitters like No Country and A Serious Man is almost certainly going to cause some to be disappointed.
On the Side: The film’s soundtrack was composed by T-Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, Marcus Mumford and Oscar Isaac himself.