Radiant "Inside Llewyn Davis" Transcends Medium

As soon as the title card rolls and the first fingerpicked notes of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” slink into the ether, the aim of “Inside Llewyn Davis” is evident. The film is a lamentation borne of the most deep-seated compulsions of an artist. It’s a piece that shares an essential bond with its title character, each finding a deep, doleful beauty in dysfunction. The picture doesn’t merely reflect the turmoil inherent in creativity, but memorializes it by marrying a gorgeously symmetrical narrative to some of the most memorable visuals in recent cinematic history. Joel and Ethan Coen have made some indelible films to date, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” is their most accomplished work yet. In short, it’s a masterpiece.

It’s 1961. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer based in New York’s Greenwich Village. Formerly half of a little known folk duo, Llewyn has begun to forge a career as a solo artist. He lives the life of a gypsy, couch-surfing across town with nothing but his guitar and a pack of clothes. Soon after the film opens, he finds himself staying with a well-to-do couple on the Upper West Side. Upon inadvertently locking himself out of their apartment with their pet tabby cat, he sets into motion a bizarre series of events that takes him from New York to Chicago and back again.

Llewyn’s acerbic disposition doesn’t win him any friends, but the immensity of his talent has kept him viable within the folk music community. He clings to those close to him while simultaneously pushing them away, sometimes violently. He doesn’t suffer fools, least of all himself, leading his fledgling solo career to stagnate almost immediately. He views himself as better than his peers – and he is – but money is so tight that he jumps at the chance to record a kitschy novelty song for some quick cash.

The song is recorded with a few of his colleagues, including the well coiffed Jim (Justin Timberlake) – husband to Llewyn’s on-again off-again lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan) – and struggling country artist Al Cody (Adam Driver). The song, “Please Mr. Kennedy” – a delightfully surreal throwaway tune about a young cadet who’s afraid to go into outer space – is one of the film’s comedic high points, but it also serves to underline the immediacy of Llewyn’s predicament. Conform or starve. He never does make up his mind.

As vital as the screenplay is to the film’s successes, it’s essentially an outline on which the Coen brothers hang some stunning ornamentation. The high points of the picture – Isaac’s performance, the music, and the visuals – were not innate to the script, making the end result all the more astonishing. For example, an early scene that depicts Llewyn watching a performance by a fellow musician, Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), is particularly remarkable. Isaac is able to relay Llewyn’s thoughts on Troy, the performance, and the audience members without a word of dialogue. Few actors are capable of relaying an inner monologue so clearly, let alone filmmakers being trustworthy enough to let it happen.

The songs are uniformly stunning. Most are used in a live context while a couple are used non-diegetically (coming from offscreen). A studio version of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford is used as a scene-setter while Llewyn traverses the subway system with cat in tow. The song is heartbreaking in its own right, but combined with the film’s breathtaking production design and some dazzling cinematography – the cat’s flickering reflection in a subway car’s window is particularly noteworthy – it makes for yet another dialogue free sequence that ranks among the filmmakers’ best.

Act II takes place on the road, with John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund turning in brief but impressive supporting performances. The narrative takes a backseat during the pic’s middle third, but it’s here that the imagery evolves from impressive to downright haunting, vaulting the film from excellence to enormity. The atmosphere is so achingly melancholy that it transcends its own gloominess, becoming effortlessly poetic. The images on display – marked with slightly soft focus and desaturated colors – are nothing short of colossal, driving home the symbolism behind this “hero’s journey.”

There’s not a false note in the entire picture, much of its dramatic weight a result of Oscar Isaac’s tour de force performance. He commands the screen with authority, making a deeply layered character accessible while maintaining the appropriate amount of mystique. His acting is only rivaled by his musical ability, both of which he honed at New York’s Julliard School in the early 2000s. Isaac has mostly been relegated to supporting roles in the past, but here he proves he’s entirely capable of carrying a film on his own, making an unlikable character wholly endearing.

Some of the Coen brothers’ filmography has been interpreted as distant and impersonal. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is anything but. Their passion for the material is deeply felt in each frame, their lead character so finely drawn that it’s impossible not to empathize with him despite his vast shortcomings. The film will hit artistic types especially hard, as it starkly relays the internal battle that comes with creativity. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is wonderful on every level, a luminous entry into the Coen brothers’ oeuvre – and the best film of 2013.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Classic)

Release Date: December 6, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: CBS Films
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenwriter: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund
MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references)