MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

Film: Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by: Ethan and Joel Coen
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, John Goodman, Carey Mulligan

“I don’t see a lot of money here,” a nightclub owner played by F. Murray Abraham tells Llewyn Davis after the folk singer bares his soul during a private performance in which he attempts to score a gig at his Chicago venue. But he could just as well have been talking about the actor portraying the struggling musician.

You see, back in the spring of 2011, Oscar Isaac was director Tony Gilroy’s first choice to take over for Matt Damon as the new face of the Bourne franchise. That selection was vetoed by Universal Pictures and the role ultimately went to Jeremy Renner because the major studios assume the public likes to see the same five or so white actors top-lining every major action picture. Isaac eventually settled into a supporting role as The Bourne Legacy came and went with little fanfare. Fast forward two years and Isaac finally has his starring vehicle after years of solid supporting work in films like Body of Lies and Drive.

Abraham suggests Davis trim his beard into a goatee and form a trio with two other artists in his stable. Davis refuses. He’s a solo artist. Or at least he is now, after his partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge. Though mostly uncompromising, Davis isn’t completely against selling out for a quick buck, recording a cheesy jingle about President Kennedy with a couple of other musicians (Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver). But mostly, he just drifts around New York City, hopping from one couch to another and picking up the occasional gig at a local dive bar.

One such couch belongs to Carey Mulligan. She’s pregnant and there’s a chance it’s Llewyn’s child. She’d keep the baby if she knew it wasn’t Llewyn’s. But she wants an abortion. You know, just in case. Davis somehow comes across as both narcissistic and humble. In one instant, he’s yelling at a friend for asking him to sing at her dinner party, and in another he’s begging friends to let him stash his records and guitar in their apartment so he doesn’t have to lug them around all day. He doesn’t seem to like people, but he understands that his existence depends largely on the aid of those around him.

The film is more intimate and less gabby than what we’ve come to expect from the Coen Brothers. It’s also much less plot-driven, aiming to transport us to a specific time, place and feeling rather than tell a story with a bunch of twists and turns. The real-life inspiration for the film is Brooklyn folk musician Dave Van Ronk, who released an album called Inside Dave Van Ronk in 1963. Van Ronk’s memoirs, The Mayor Of MacDougal Street, were published three years after his death in 2002, and the Coens’ script centers on a chapter chronicling one failed, shitty trip to Chicago.

Through all of the film’s quiet, melancholy moments and extended concert performance scenes, it’s easy to forget we’re actually watching a Coen Brothers film. And then we’re introduced to a drunk and stoned John Goodman, snoring in the back of the car Davis is hitching to Chicago. Foul mouthed and spit-firing insults, Goodman quickly reminds us whose work we’re watching. The Coens also utilize a plot device in the form of a cat that keeps slipping from Llewyn’s grasp. Similar to the rug in The Big Lebowski or the mysterious disc in Burn After Reading, this cat keeps Davis moving and gives him purpose and something to do during his down moments, of which there appear to be plenty.

The film is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, which is to say it effectively captures the dingy dives, slimy alleys and claustrophobic hallways in New York apartment buildings. As for the music, it’s a raw, cathartic brand of folk music that suggests years of struggle and pain. Isaac sings a number of classic folk songs produced by Marcus Mumford and T-Bone Burnett, who found similar success on O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Crazy Heart. The performances in the film were recorded live, and if you’ve seen 10 Years, you already know this is a good thing as the intense emotion and sincerity of Isaac’s performance jumps off the screen and speakers.

So as it turns out, there might be some money in Oscar Isaac after all. The film’s soundtrack is going to sell a ton of copies on the strength of Isaac’s voice and folk music’s recent surge in popularity, while Isaac could go on to achieve bonafide leading man status as the Coens have certainly shown a knack for launching new stars. I’d like to think Llewyn Davis will have his day as well, but I can’t be so sure. Either way, there’s something honorable and inspiring about a man so unwilling to fit into society’s mold.

Grade: A

Review written by: Kevin Blumeyer

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