Monday, December 16, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

There’s a moment midway through the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, when the title character comes to a literal crossroads. I won’t say where Llewyn Davis has the opportunity to go, but whether he veers his car slightly right, or continues straight ahead, his life will be forever altered. It’s a choice. A moral dilemma. Go this way and explore something new. Go that way and remain stuck.

And that’s exactly where Llewyn Davis is when we first meet him: stuck. As a superbly talented but financially struggling folk musician in ‘60s era Greenwhich Village, we learn that Llewyn’s worst enemy is himself. After years of never quite making ends meet, let alone reaching stardom, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) has grown bitter and cold toward the world. He slums around the Village, taking gigs where he can, eating scraps out of friends’ fridges, and crashing on the couches of people who still tolerate him. Llewyn is the kind of self-entitled artist who is aware of his talent, and furious that the world hasn’t caught up yet.

I mentioned that Llewyn has grown bitter, but perhaps that’s presumptuous. Perhaps Llewyn has always been like this. Truth is, we never really know. There are hints as to why Llewyn is so angry at the world, but we’re never offered conclusive reasoning as to when his incredible arrogance took hold. That’s part of what makes Inside Llewyn Davis compelling: it’s a folk tale character study wrapped in emotional mystery. Why are we the way we are? A near-impossible question to answer, but one that I always appreciate watching the Coen brothers explore.
Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t have a plot. There’s no singular conflict for the protagonist to resolve, mainly because Llewyn Davis’ entire life is a conflict. Beyond his daily struggles to secure work and shelter, the film focuses on Llewyn’s shattered relationships with people. This includes the fiery Jean (Carey Mulligan), Jean’s understanding-if-not-na├»ve partner, Jim (Justin Timberlake), the overly nice wealthy couple who consistently welcome Llewyn into their home, the bar owner who fights Llewyn as often as he hugs him, and so on. The film gracefully shifts from Llewyn’s interactions with these people, to spellbinding musical performances, to extended sequences of Llewyn’s isolation. There’s no three act structure – Llewyn’s life is stuck in Act 1, waiting to find propose or motivation.

Oscar Isaac is a wonderful young character actor who has appeared in a number of popular films, perhaps most notably as Mulligan’s doomed husband in Drive. But with Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac has seized the opportunity to deliver a star making performance. It’s hard to play such a loathsome character and have the audience begging for more, but Isaac is so captivating in his pity, that you can’t take your eyes off him. As Jean, Mulligan delivers her angriest work to date. It was actually quite refreshing to watch her play a character void of emotional beauty. Justin Timberlake also pleasingly plays against type, presenting the least flashy performance of his career. It was great to be drawn to both Mulligan and Timberlake for reasons I wasn’t used to.
The acting is splendid, the musical performances are remarkable, and it’s one of the best looking films of the year, thanks to Bruno Delbonnel’s cold and sepia-infused color palette. So, essentially, Inside Llewyn Davis should be another classic Coen brothers film. But there was something missing. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but something I simply could not shake. As much as I prefer character studies to plot-heavy pictures, I never fully invested in Inside Llewyn Davis. The film was occasionally so sparse it was off-putting, and I found its bookended looping narrative device to be pointless and distracting.

But I’m just one opinion. By most accounts, Inside Llewyn Davis is a hit, destined to be one of the most critically revered films of 2013. Maybe it will speak to you more profoundly than it did me. I will say this about the film: I saw it weeks ago and haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. I’m still haunted by those crossroads, wondering what would’ve happened if Llewyn went the other way. B

26 comments:

  1. This isn't quite as bad as I had assumed after messaging you yesterday. I honestly can't wait to see this one, being a fan of most of those involved and just loving that time in American music history I'm prepared for this to be my favorite film of the year (I know I'm being overly presumptuous). Your review has given me cause for caution though, that I should perhaps not go in with such high expectations even though from the trailers and teasers I already love it. Thank you once again for the spot-on and non-conforming reviews you do here. Each one is a treat and really brightens my day (especially when it's snowing out).

    Also, "...it’s a folk tale character study wrapped in accurate emotional mystery." Pun intended or not good sir?

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    1. Ha, what I meant by that line was that we as people rarely know why we act the way we act. That's the mystery part: who are we, and why. And by "accurate" I meant that the Coens handled that question really well. Still, it's a tad confusing, so I dropped accurate.

      You know, after your tweet, I thought a lot about the film and realized I liked it more than I thought. I also remembered the lackluster effect many Coen brothers films have on me after only one viewing. Their films have a way of growing on me, and who knows, maybe that'll be the case here.

      Thanks so much for the kind words about my reviews. That really does mean a lot. I try to leave negativity out of it and just report what I think the movie is.

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  2. I really hope to see this though I'm not fond of folk music at this moment. In fact, I just hate today's folk music but this still interest me as I do like that period of the 1960s. And I hope Roger Deakins returns for the next Coen Brothers film.

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    1. Oh I hate folk music too, but trust me, the songs in this film are incredible. I hope Deakins returns too, but I'm sure he will. He only skipped this one to shoot Skyfall.

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    2. Do you think he made the right decision?

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    3. To shoot Skyfall? Certainly. Delbonnel did excellent work with this film, and Deakins' work for Skyfall speaks for itself. Definitely a fair trade.

      Plus I think Deakins was already shooting Skyfall when the Coens started filming this. The shoot for Skyfall would've lasted far longer than the shooting for Inside Llewyn Davis, you know? Just bad timing.

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  3. i didn't love the film, but i did really like isaac and mulligan (the bets performance i've seen from her)

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    1. Yep, same here. We're agreeing a lot lately!

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  4. Have to wait ages to see this in Australia.

    Man, that shot of Carey Mulligan has me emotional already! Haha. Will check out the review once I've seen.

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    1. She's so good in it. A small role, but one that she nails. Hope you like the film!

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  5. Lovely review as always. I saw this almost two weeks ago now and I think about it often, but not because of its staying power necessarily. I feel like I'm constantly reconsidering how much I liked it. On first viewing I was enjoying the experience but the more I realized it wasn't going anywhere the less I could appreciate it. I don't need a specific arc, but the way Llewyn Davis was going I just wanted something, no matter how slight to happen by the end of it. I almost liked the loop, but then when it ended I was like "crap, that's it?". It could've been a little neater if they were going to go for something that unusual. I agree, there's just something missing here.

    Oscar Isaac was incredible though, so I can definitely see myself going back to this for him and the music.

    Question: how much did you like A Serious Man?

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    1. Thanks Jess! It sounds like we're in full agreement on this film. I just can't wrapped my head around whether or not I fully liked it. A tough film to love, for me anyway.

      You know, I felt the exact same way about A Serious Man as I do about Inside Llewyn Davis. When I saw A Serious Man for a second time, I did like it much more, but curiously enough, I haven't watched it since. I think those two films are very similar on a number of levels.

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    2. Yeah, I think the films feel very similar in approach. However, I really did not like A Serious Man. While watching it I kept waiting to start to like it and, aside from a few scenes, I really couldn't get into it. The ending annoyed the hell out of me too. I liked ILD far more, but I felt like if one was a fan of A Serious Man they would definitely like ILD and vice versa. So based on your reaction I feel like that was a fair assessment.

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    3. Oh yeah, that is definitely fair. Both are quite similar in tone. Like I said, I appreciated A Serious Man, but I doubt I'll ever watch it again. Whereas I'll could watch No Country for Old Men, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Miller's Crossing, etc on repeat.

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  6. Hmmm. Seen a lot of love for this,so im surprised this didn't get an A from you.

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  7. Love that you open discussing that crossroads moment because that was the moment that most stuck with me too. The Coen Brothers are usually so cruel to their characters but, I swear, in this one they're practically BEGGING Llewyn to stop screwing up. And that moment was the ultimate example of it to me.

    And that's why personally I liked the looping device, like he was destined to be stuck in Act I, as you put it, for eternity. At the same time, I agree there was something causing me to resist fully embracing the film. And I having the damnedest time figuring out what it is.

    But then I've always admired folk music more than I've actually liked it. So.....

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    1. That crossroads scene was a definite highlight for me. And you're so right about how the Coens are usually cruel to their characters. I never thought about it that way before. So true.

      I see what they were doing with the looping device, but it completely took me out of the film. But, incidentally, I do suppose it helps support that Act 1 theory of mine. Ha.

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  8. Good work here Alex. A new Coens movie is always a treat for me and I really like the sound of this one.

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    1. Thanks Mark. This one certainly belongs in the Coen Brothers Odd category, but so many of their best films do. Hope you like it!

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  9. Fantastic review. I'm so excited to see this one. Unfortunately, it doesn't come out in the UK until January.

    How would you rank it compared to other Coen Brother's films?

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    1. Thanks man! Ah bummer. Well, hopefully it's worth the wait my friend.

      I dig all their films, but if I ranked them:
      No Country
      Fargo
      Blood Simple
      Miller's Crossing
      Barton Fink
      The Big Lebowski
      The Man Who Wasn't There
      O Brother
      Burn After Reader
      A Serious Man
      Inside Llewyn Davis
      True Grit
      Raising AZ
      Intolerable Cruelty
      The Ladykillers
      The Hudsucker Proxy

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  10. Lovely review! For some reason it doesn't seem like something Coen brothers would do for me. The look of the film from the pictures is so somber is somewhat lyrical. It does sound like very strong movie, performances wise, so I'll definitely see it.

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    1. Thanks! It is easily one of their most somber movies yet. Far more like A Serious Man than really anything else they've done. I'll be curious to hear your thoughts on it.

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  11. I have a love/hate relationship with the Coens. When they're on, their work is fantastic. I love films like Fargo, Blood Simple, and No Country, but I'm not as enthusiastic on some of their newer work, such as True Grit, A Serious Man, and Intolerable Cruelty. (Liked TG and ASM, didn't love them.) Still, I can't wait to check this out.

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    1. Yeah, I'm with you. They don't have an... obvious filmography, if that makes sense. I love No Country and Burn After Reading, but haven't truly loved any of their other films for a long while now.

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