Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

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A week in the life of a folk singer who is trying to recover from a recent tragedy.

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Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013

Couch-surfing folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is at an impasse. The sudden suicide of his performing partner has left him unmoored, struggling to deal with his mourning. He’s also something of a human disaster. His solo album refuses to sell, and he struggles to find gigs thanks to his difficult attitude. He performs gigs around Greenwich Village by night while drifting from one friend’s apartment to another. When Llewyn is locked out of his friends’ apartment after accidentally letting their cat out, he takes the cat to the home of Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). Jean informs Llewyn that she’s pregnant and asks him to pay for an abortion. In trying to get together the money for her abortion, Llewyn goes to his sister and his manager before deciding to try to audition for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) in Chicago.

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Inside Llewyn Davis is a strange, moody, hyper-hipster film with a damp aesthetic that succeeds on the strength of its lead actor. It moves slowly when it’s moving at all, as aimless as its lead character as it tells its circular narrative. The Coens’ uncomfortably awkward humour permeates through most scenes, making the film a tough watch some of the time. Llewyn is a hard guy to like, angry, sarcastic and bitter, scrounging off his friends as he drifts aimlessly from couch to couch. For most of the movie, Llewyn is a figure of pity, both from himself and others. Even the people who are supposed to like him, like his sister, Jim and Jean, seem to waver between barely tolerating him and outright anger or frustration. But then he picks up his guitar and starts singing, and the film hits another level. Isaac’s hooded eyes drift closed as he delivers song after song with a kind of heart that most films about singers can only dream of. These are the moments that make the film work, that give us something to root for. His voice is warm and inviting with an edge of sadness that lets us glimpse Llewyn’s soul.

The whole film has a gauzy dreamlike aesthetic that’s quite pretty, if a little dreary after a while. It helps that the film is pretty to watch when not a lot is happening (not that casting Oscar Isaac hurts in that regard, either). The film seems to be more invested in the aesthetic of the Greenwich Village folk scene than telling a complete story. While he’s never seen outside a glimpse of an album cover, the ghost of Llewyn’s singing partner Timlin hangs heavy over the whole film. Despite a decent roster of actors in supporting roles, most of the supporting roles come across as one-dimensional Coen tropes rather than full characters. There’s a heavy dose of quirk running through the film that keeps it from being properly emotionally affecting; these people mostly seem so unreal and largely unlikeable that it’s hard to care much about them, even if their frustration with Llewyn is understandable. John Goodman shows up to put in a big cameo that ends in an irritatingly strange manner, much like the film does. There’s some sense of a journey completed, but it’s very much an implicit one, and it doesn’t give much of a sense of closure. It’s not one of the Coens’ best efforts, but it’s a great starring role for Oscar Isaac.

Inside Llewyn Davis on IMDb

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