Man, do the Coens ever know how to direct, write, and shoot a goddamn movie. Inside Llewyn Davis is their most unrelentingly bleak effort in years. The movie is beautiful, tragic, and seemingly plotless (I’m having some deja-vu to my last review), but comes full circle in a staggering way. It’s the very definition of a “black comedy;” every time you laugh, you feel bad about it a minute later.
Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn, a talented everyman folk musician who arrived on the scene at precisely the wrong time – that is, just before Bob Dylan struck gold. Llewyn is a couch-surfing sadsack, a total jerk, eminently kickable, and yet completely sympathetic. He’s a man living a broken dream, and suffering artists everywhere can sympathize with his plight. He once had a musical partner (voiced on the soundtrack by Marcus Mumford), who killed himself, and people don’t seem to take to him as a solo act. With barely enough to get by, he relies on the kindness of a combination of friends, his one remaining family member (his surly sister, who has trouble understanding “show people”), and his friends – namely, Jim and Jean (played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan). Jean, like most, is losing patience with him, especially after their affair last year that might have resulted in the bun she’s just found in her oven. The movie spans a week of Llewyn’s life, and he makes his way through the Village; a road trip with surly jazz musician Roland Turner (a hilarious cameo by John Goodman, a Coen Brothers staple) and Johnny Five (a super hot cameo by Garrett Hedlund, super hot man piece); and a one-on-one audition in Chicago for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), based on Dylan’s real-life manager, which ends heartbreakingly. The movie literally comes full circle at the very end – the opening shots, of Llewyn waking up at the Gorfein’s (professor friends of his on the Upper West Side) apartment, heading to the Gaslight, and getting his ass kicked in the alleyway after his performance are almost identical, except for one small difference – letting the cat escape the first time, and pushing him back inside the second.
This is a film ripe for academic papers and film students looking for something to throw into their theses – I could write about the philosophical implications of this film for quite some time, mostly focusing on the cat. I actually saw a really great article on The Atlantic today about how Llewyn actually is the cat, which is fascinating (and which I totally buy). But I’ll keep this review straightforward, and just say that the film, taken at face value, is stunning and dark. Literally, most of the time, it’s dark, whether Llewyn is hitch-hiking late into night or playing a dimly-lit show. Even the daytime shots are filled with mournful gray skies, indicating that there really is no sunlight to be found here. Sure, the Coens bring their signature quick wit to the script, which is filled with jibs, jabs and tiny funny moments, but this is the saddest Coen movie I’ve seen in quite some time. The saddest scene, which they recently discussed with Vulture, is easily the audition for Grossman, who simply and bluntly tells Llewyn, “I don’t see a lot of money here,” and suggests he get back together with his bandmate, not knowing that said bandmate is dead and gone. Watching Llewyn have his dreams crushed so quickly and easily is incredibly devastating, and the Coens do it brilliantly, with just a few words and a dusty, dark room. The whole movie leads up to this one terrible moment, and watching Llewyn suffer through an East Coast winter without so much as a coat and without any hope at all is hard, but worth watching.
The movie is well-cast and stunningly acted, with (I believe) just one exception. Isaac carries the movie easily – the actor himself is a talented musician, and sells Llewyn so well that we feel bad for him even when he’s awful, which is often. His face is expressive, but not overly so, which works so well – as a man who has to bottle most things up to survive, his eyes belie just a small part of his pain. Every single other actor in the movie is a supporting or bit part, by virtue of the fact that none of them are around for very long. This is Isaac’s movie, and Llewyn moves quickly, leaving everyone behind in his wake. Justin Timberlake always initially feels like stunt casting, but he’s a perfect fit in this movie as the sunny-tempered Jim, who writes peppy little songs that Llewyn so disdains of, though he participates in recording one of those ditties with Timberlake and Adam Driver. Oh, Adam Driver. You’re just playing Adam, again, and I don’t even care, because you’re hilarious. (Alex Karpovsky, another face from Girls, shows up too, but in the minor-est of parts.) Goodman brings his best, as he always does in Coen films, and Abraham is perfect in this role. The actor I take issue with here is Carey Mulligan. I don’t usually have even a single issue with Carey Mulligan. I think she’s lovely, and a perfectly talented actress. My problems here are two-fold: her atrocious American accent, and her crappy character (by no fault of her own). Mulligan is British, as we all know, and here, it really showed. Her New York accent could barely contain her Britishness, and was completely distracting, but the bigger issue is her thin, shrill character. This isn’t really fair, as this is a fault of the script itself, but Jean is awful. She’s a one-dimensional angry woman, and spends her entire part scowling or pouting. Maybe her poorly-written character just turned me against Mulligan, but she felt out of place, miscast, and super British.
I had one, tiny character issue, but other than that, Inside Llewyn Davis is remarkable. It’s a near-perfect, sobering, and engrossing look at a man who falls just short of his dream and can barely survive, and it’s beautifully written and stunningly directed. I’m a self-confessed Coen fangirl, but these two have become masters of their craft – when a new Coen Brothers movie is on the horizon, people pay attention (and, full disclosure: as an aspiring actress but mostly nobody, they’re the directors I’d most like to work with). I can forgive the Jean issue, because she’s just not a great character, and that’s okay; the Coens have written plenty of fantastic female characters to mollify me (Fargo, True Grit, Intolerable Cruelty, etc.). This movie forced me to come to terms with my own unfulfilled dreams, but I didn’t even mind. It’s lovely and terrible, and it stands out as one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.