Inside Llewyn Davis

Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, and Justin Timberlake

As I conclude another year of running STMR, I've begun reflecting on all the movies I've seen and the hundreds of reviews I've written during the 2+ years since the site was founded.  After doing so, I can say one thing with the utmost confidence.  I have absolutely no idea what movies I'll end up loving.  With the holiday mass of films starting to crowd cinemas around the country, one would think I would have my sights set on American Hustle or Anchorman 2.  While I have some love for David O. Russell's motley crew as well as Ron Burgundy, I have much more love this weekend for the Mary Poppins ode Saving Mr. Banks and Joel and Ethan Coen's music drama Inside Llewyn Davis.  Clearly, I'm a sucker for some good tunes, whether we're talking about classic Disney songs or 60's folk music.  While I've yet to put my thoughts on the former on paper, this is my opportunity to declare my love for the latter.

It's 1961.  Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer from Greenwich Village who spends his nights on the couches of "friends".  Playing regularly at the Gaslight Cafe, he hasn't really made an impact on the music scene, especially given the passing of his partner Mike a couple of years ago.  He has made an unexpected impact elsewhere, however.  He's friends with another pair of folk singers, Jim and Jean Berkey (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan).  In the not too distant past, he slept with Jean behind Jim's back.  When Llewyn spends the night at their apartment, Jean informs him that she's now pregnant.  Per Jean's recommendation, maybe Llewyn should have used a double condom.  It probably would have prevented the situation in which he now finds himself.

Jean is not the only person Llewyn has alienated over the course of the last several days.  With Jean ready to have an abortion at Llewyn's expense, the struggling folk singer starts spending his nights on the couches of some of these other people.  Having previously stayed with Mitch Gorfein (Ethan Phillips) and lost his cat Ulysses, dinner with Gorfein and his wife Lillian (Robin Bartlett) gets pretty heated one night.  Llewyn also spends some time at his sister Joy's (Jeanine Serralles) home and tells her all about how those who don't sing just exist when she suggests that he consider an industry other than entertainment.  Llewyn even stays with Jim's partner Al Cody (Adam Driver).  When he's worn out his welcome with Al, he hits the road for Chicago.  At Al's suggestion, he joins Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and Roland Turner (John Goodman) on their road trip to the windy city.  Llewyn would like nothing more than to impress folk music insider Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) and get a break at his club the Gates of Horn.

Crackling with soul and chock full of surprisingly good folk tunes, Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis offers a truly intimate look at the 60's folk music scene.  The Coen Brothers deftly craft an engrossing period film that is just as applicable to today as it was in the 60's.  With Oscar Isaac giving one of his best performances to date and a robust supporting cast offering up a host of colorful characters, Inside Llewyn Davis is a musical drama with performances as rich as its songs and filmmaking.  All in all, the latest entry from Joel and Ethan Coen is one fine piece of cinema.

We really are watching masters at work here.  Using hard lighting, they immerse us in a world trademarked by grit.  The entertainment industry is a rough business and the lighting really shows the toll it takes on all the folk singers.  It also emphasizes how lonely and cold a place the stage can be.  The Coens put the music itself to use to give us a peek inside the tormented soul of Llewyn Davis but to also highlight the difference between artistry and business.  The music of struggling artist Llewyn is much more soulful than the pop sound Jim and Al bring to the film.  While this is a striking juxtaposition of two different kinds of folk music singers, it could arguably be commentary on the pathetic state of today's music industry and how real musicians aren’t getting their due.

The cast only makes Inside Llewyn Davis an even more compelling piece of cinema.  As our titular character Llewyn Davis and a self-destructive loser, Oscar Isaac gives an introspective, melancholic performance.  Whether flying off the handle spewing hateful words or showcasing some of his hidden musical talents, Isaac really brings his best to the film.  We need to see him tackling more roles like this as his career progresses.  For her part as Llewyn's friend Jean, Carey Mulligan shows us her tougher side.  It's absolutely delightful to see her as this embittered wife spouting nothing but vitriol at Llewyn.  She shines when bringing darker characters like this to life.  As Roland Turner, John Goodman also brings a great deal of personality to the film.  Endlessly trading barbs with Llewyn about anything and everything, Goodman once again rises to the occasion.  Other supporting cast members including Justin Timberlake and Garrett Hedlund stand out in their moments on camera as well.

I am still shocked that I've fallen in love with Inside Llewyn Davis.  I know we're talking about a film from Joel and Ethan Coen, two truly prolific filmmakers. However, I never expected to fall for a movie about folk music.  It's a really excellent film that serves as strong counter-programming to the more upbeat films hitting the box office during this time of year.  Inside Llewyn Davis gets a sober rating.  You'll definitely be humming some tunes from a bygone era after this one.  Wherever you're going, fare thee well as you head off for the holidays.