Film Reviews

Inside Llewyn Davis Joel and Ethan Coen

Rating - 7/10

The Coen Brothers' latest character portrait on the margins comes in the form of Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer in the early 1960s Greenwich Village, New York.  Inside Llewyn Davis' elliptical execution bears the two directors' indelible hallmark, which is amplified by the profoundly committed performance of Oscar Isaac in the titular role, a surrogate to musician Dave Van Ronk.  Isaac's grace and chops on the acoustic guitar also well-serve the arrangements by legendary producer-songwriter T Bone Burnett.

Davis is intimately introduced at close-up playing the Ronk standard Hang Me, Oh Hang Me to a modest but attentive audience at the smoky Gaslight Café.  National success seems to be imminent, but something more sinister is lurking in the alleyway outside, as a rugged man in the shadows hasn't taken too kindly to Davis' heckling of an unseen performer from the previous night.  The Coens' revel in a reverse chronological shift, as Davis then awakens some time earlier at the apartment of friends Mitch and Lilian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) to the sight of their tabby cat, who quickly becomes an elusive phenomenon as Davis' shifty companion and animal manifestation - the lonely wandering soul on the periphery.

Subsisting on loaned money and forced to crash on the couches and floors of friends in the city, Davis has overstayed his welcome with nearly all of his fellow troubadours, including his friend's severe wife, Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), who may or may not be pregnant with his child.  Unfortunately, in this secondary role, Mulligan has a tendency to overact, sharply enunciating every syllable in every line she speaks as if attempting to give her character unneeded zest and weight, which in turn ruins any potential on-screen chemistry.  The film's impression is saved by the Coens' successful balancing of interpersonal poignancy and flat-out entertaining ensemble scenes like the ridiculous range of vocalizing on Please Mr. Kennedy, a comical ditty against the space race, which Davis, Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake), and country-westerner Al Cody (Adam Driver) rehearse in the Columbia Records studio as the "John Glen Singers."

In the musician's early career, he was half of the successful duo Timlin and Davis who found a hit record in If We Had Wings, which is a lyrical reference to the folk standard Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song), a recurring and featured solo performance by Davis in the film.  It speaks to his need for togetherness when he has none; former partner Mike Timlin committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge in a backstory that is teased more than it is elucidated.  By veiling the tragedy, the spotlight is thrown solely upon Davis, as his inner grief and history become a subject of intrigue for the audience (even if Davis' audiences in the film may be less than captivated).  The surrounding cast is mostly loquacious and eager to speak, but Davis is more emotionally pent up, possessing a hardened exterior through the disappointment of gigging and a breakthrough attempt at solo stardom following the departure of his friend and collaborator.  Unspoken angst is instead channeled through his playing of the guitar both publicly and privately, eternally reaching for catharsis and spiritual consolation.

When Davis is suddenly given an opportunity to bum a ride to Chicago with associates of session musician Al Cody - a portly, aging pool-hustling druggie Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his curt beat poet valet, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) - he recalls the Gate of Horn venue and the name of manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), who was one of the recipients of his solo debut recording that bears the film's title.  On this potentially fate-altering journey, allusions to Homer's The Odyssey take form, with the Coens' adeptly emphasizing the cruelty of chance or timing.  On another timeline in the '60s era, Davis may have found success as a charismatic leader, a songwriting virtuoso like Bob Dylan, not relegated to performing in the shadow of his peers to the will of music executives.  The film's resounding glimpse comes in the form of the aforementioned studio scene where, in order to make ends meet, Davis sacrifices the singular warmth of his stage presence to play hokey back-up for a cut of a check.  Such is the nature of the artist, persistently juggling the preservation of a vision despite commercial intimidation.  As long-standing artists themselves, the Coen Brothers get inside the decade's trials and tribulations by capturing the under-appreciated sincerity through extended musical performances; they resist the urge to turn Davis into a mere headline on a poster in their fake musical history to pragmatically depict a fringe character's struggle on the cusp of a new age.