THE STORY – In 1961 New York City, folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is at a crossroads. Guitar in hand, he struggles against seemingly insurmountable obstacles to make a name for himself in the music world, but so far, success remains elusive. Relying on the kindness of both friends and strangers, Llewyn embarks on an odyssey that takes him from the streets of Greenwich Village to a Chicago club, where awaits a music mogul who could give him the big break that he desperately needs.
THE CAST – Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham & Adam Driver
THE TEAM – Joel Coen & Ethan Coen (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
By Ema Sasic
It’s always a treat when you see one of an actor’s best roles, if not their top-tier performance, on-screen. You see how every line, emotion, and struggle comes to them so naturally, almost as if they’ve known this character and have been studying them their whole life. It leads to such a believable experience for the audience and makes it a delight to revisit time and time again. It’s also exciting to see directors and/or writers try something new in their storytelling, whether it be a new tone or a totally different story than we’re used to, especially when it sticks the landing.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a movie that has all of the above and more. Set in 1961, the film follows Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk singer whose solo career is less than glamorous and fruitful. The first scene we see ends with him getting sucker-punched in the face, and it pretty much tells you a lot you need to know about Llewyn. His solo album sales are tanking, he barely has any money to survive, and he’s crashing on friends’ couches daily. Not to mention his friends’ cat accidentally escaped, and now he has to chase after it in New York City. Oh, one more thing, he had an affair with his married friend Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), and now he has to pay for an abortion. Llewyn sure knows how to make his mark in the world, and for the most part, he’s hard to like. But there’s a loss he’s still mourning that is making even the enjoyable moments hard. It may be why our protagonist is the way he is, but it also seems to push him to prove he can make it big.
Though we’re only on Llewyn’s journey for less than two hours, he shows us that it’s tough to become a successful singer, even for those with impressive vocals, and he’s willing to take any opportunity that comes his way. One includes the easy-to-get-stuck-in-your-head song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” which Llewyn records with Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver). Instead of potentially gaining royalties from the song, he, so desperate for money, takes $200 on the spot, which turns out to be quite the slap in the face by the end of the film. And when he doesn’t hear back from a folk guru (F. Murray Abraham), he goes on an ill-fated road trip to Chicago with a jazz musician and his driver (John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund, respectively). Llewyn has several ups and downs, but one thing remains constant: he doesn’t change his music, approach, or dream for anyone.
Enough can’t be said about Isaac’s performance in this film. He perfectly captures the asshole personality and really makes you hate him, but then when it’s time to perform a song, he looks deep into your eyes and melts your heart. You can’t help but enjoy when bad things happen to Llewyn, knowing that he totally deserves it all while also secretly finding yourself rooting for him to make it big somehow. From the first moment you lay eyes on our messy, rude, and a bit unstable protagonist, you’re not going to be looking at anyone else. It’s truly a shame he missed out on a Best Actor nomination in 2014.
The ensemble also deserves credit. Mulligan, Timberlake, and even Driver were perfectly cast in this. Mulligan plays the firecracker spirit of Jean to a T, and nothing is sweeter than hearing her yell at Llewyn with every chance she gets. Timberlake and Driver’s Jim and Al, respectively, contrast significantly with Llewyn regarding their spirits and the way they approach the music industry. They’re eager to make it big, but they choose to write a silly jingle to get their names out into the world, which will then hopefully allow them to make the music they really want. It’s a totally different path compared to Llewyn’s, which makes audiences question if he’s in a sense sabotaging himself by not wanting to change course.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is more toned down than other Coen Brothers’ films but still manages to engross audiences. The script shows you what it means to be down on your luck constantly and when it might be time to consider giving up — all the stuff we don’t like to see/be reminded of from real-life — but still has plenty of humor that we’re used to from the Coens. The look of the film itself is beautiful as well — it’s moody, not too bright, and perfectly represents Llewyn’s life. The Academy was right to include cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel among the 2014 nominees for best cinematography.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is moving, funny, and a treat for Coen brothers fans. The “down on your luck constantly” tale isn’t one we usually see, but even those stories deserve to be told. The ending, which comes back full circle from the beginning, might be slightly anticlimactic, though definitely deserved, but so much good is being done that even that doesn’t impact the pleasurable viewing experience audiences will have time and time again.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A genuinely captivating performance from Oscar Isaac, great ensemble members, and a nice change of pace for the Coen brothers. Beautiful cinematography and music.