So few directors can infuse the story of a struggling, down on his luck musician with so much unapologetic dark humor and persistent optimism. The Coen Brothers achieve just that with Inside Llewyn Davis. Oscar Isaac delivers an incredibly stirring performance, delivering deep soulful ballads that will leave the viewer entranced. Living a squanderous life of some notoriety and virtually no pay, Llewyn Davis wanders New York desperately seeking his big break. Unable to afford his own place, Llewyn couch surfs and depends on his various acquaintances to shelter him from a particularly troubling winter. Centered around the folk revival scene of the 1960’s, the film’s plot follows a pattern closely resembling folk songs and has fun with the cyclical nature of music. The end result is a finely crafted love letter to some of the unsung heroes of the pre-Bob Dylan folk scene in Greenwich Village.
Inside Llewyn Davis follows a week in the shoes of an incredibly talented, egocentric, self-righteous, and incredibly dependant musician. Able to paralyze dank rooms of patron and sway crowds with his song, Llewyn Davis finds himself in financial hardship. Homeless, single, and with no real emotional connections Llewyn relies heavily on fellow musicians and benefactors within the folk scene. Selfish and rude, Llewyn insulates himself from most of these individuals. After crashing on the couch of an acquaintance, Llewyn accidentally lets their tabby cat slip through the door with the door locking behind him. Unsure what to do Llewyn takes the cat to with him to the next destination. Shortly after, he manages to sneak the cat into another apartment occupied by none other than his spurned lover Jean (Carey Mulligan) and her new beau (Justin Timberlake).
The metaphorical purpose of the cat is eloquent in its’ duality. From one angle, the cat is a mirror of Llewyn’s wanton and mercurial nature. From another, the cat serves as a way to humanize a character who could easily be dismissed as repugnant. Why does Llewyn care so much about the cat when he seems to care so little about those around him, or even himself? And that’s truly the crux of the movie. Who is Llewyn Davis? What are we not seeing, what lurks beneath his troubled brow, why must he alienate himself from people who try desperately to help him? The film hones in on Llewyn so acutely that during the entire 104 minute run time he is present in every single scene.
With the first act heavily focuses on the struggles Llewyn faces and his relationship to those around him, the second act arrives as surreal and quiet break. With sparse conversational set-up in the first act, Llewyn hitches a ride serendipitously. His companions, Roland Turner (John Goodman) and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), are headed to Chicago. It’s in this act that the movie injects some comedy gold in the form of Roland Turner. the gregarious and narcoleptic jazz musician. Offering a foil to Llewyn’s character, Roland finally cuts to the mystery of Llewyn’s previous musical partner and allows the audience to finally piece together the complex nature of Llewyn’s disposition. After several complications and some hardships, the framework and built-up tension come to glorious comedic effect at the climax of the second act. Shortly after, the darker elements of the story begin to seep back into focus.
The third act returns sees Llewyn returning to New York and slowly plays out much like the first act in reverse. The third act serves as reconciliation of the first, going back and setting things right or simply finding that problems have worked themselves out naturally (as in the case of Ulysses). All of this serves to build upon the folk music motif. As the song plays on, the lyrics slowly build upon one another until finally the listener is returned to the chorus with a sense of revelation as to it’s true meaning. When it comes to Inside Llewyn Davis, it ends in the same place it started. Only now there’s more to see.
The musical score for Inside Llewyn Davis is brilliant and powerful. Oscar Isaac’s performance in particular is incredibly moving. It is worth noting that all of the music performed in the movie is live, as it is played on set rather than a prerecorded soundtrack. Every time Llewyn picks up a guitar and begins to croon away the audience is instantly drawn past the event horizon of folk music, with time standing still. Even those who are not particularly fans of the Coen’s directing style will be incredibly moved by Isaac’s performance alone. The music is truly what makes this film a must see.
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Clarity/Detail: Very clear and easy on the eyes. The film makes use of a mostly desaturated palette but never feels overly gray or muddy.
Depth: While consisting of mostly interior scenes for dialogue the film never shies from long establishing shots of Oscar Isaac navigating the Boroughs. Particularly during the second act involving the road trip, the film does a great job of reproducing the feeling of driving through vast empty farmland and inclement weather.
Black Levels: The first and third act make brilliant use shadow, obscuring all but the faintest outlines of audience members and allowing the darkness to dance across Oscar Isaac’s faces as he laments in song. Graphically brilliant and expertly used the movie is only dark when the situation calls for it and still retains incredible clarity and readability throughout even the darkest scenes.
Color Reproduction: In living color, sort of. As mentioned earlier the film makes use of a slightly desaturated feel. Expect pops of color here and there, but for the majority of the movie look forwards to earthtones, grays, and muted greens and blues.
Flesh Tones: Due to the desaturation some of the more pale cast members look ghostly during the day scenes. While somewhat ghastly the films are so few and so short that it doesn’t detract from the film in any impactful way.
Audio Formats: 5.1 Surround
Subtitles: English SDH
Dynamics: This is where the movie truly shows it’s expertise. All of the music, sound, and dialogue are presented in glorious resolution. The audience can hear every nuance of the guitar, every quiver of the voice, and it will leave many jaws on the floor. Perhaps one of the only qualms if that there wasn’t a audio CD or MP3 pass for the audio tracks themselves. It seems like a missed opportunity to add to the experience of the film, but is only a small annoyance. It’s hard to watch this movie without the performances becoming ingrained in the mind.
Low Frequency Extension: Given the acoustic nature of the music involved there aren’t a lot of moments that warrant a lot of bass and thankfully the movie remains true to it’s source material.
Surround Sound Presentation: The surround sound really shines during the musical performances. The Coen Brothers and T-bone have captured the feeling of the dank dingy coffee house so effectively. Each performing space has an acoustic characteristic all its’ own and resonate so well with the context of the situation they are presented in.
Dialogue Reproduction: Dialogue is crisp and clear, which is thankful given the Coen brother’s talent for great dialogue. Vocals during the music performances are also captured in wonderfully high fidelity.
- Inside “Inside Llewyn Davis” – A documentary about the making of Inside Llewyn Davis. Includes interviews with Oscar Isaac, Joel and Ethan Coen, T-Bone Burnett, Carey Mulligan, Marcus Mumford, Justin Timberlake, and Stark Sands. Features much of the cast and crew rehearsing the song for the movie inside an acoustic sound studio. Also offers insight on many of the creative decisions made in the movie and the inspiration for the fictional character Llewyn Davis.
- The First Hundred Feet, The Last Hundred Feet – Interview between Guillermo del Toro and writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen and the process of filmmaking.
- Another Day, Another time – Footage of 2013 concert in New York’s Town Hall, inspired by the music of Inside Llewyn Davis. Performances include the Avett Brothers, Joan Baez, Lake Street Dive, Rhiannon Giddens, Marcus Mumford, Punch Brothers, Patti Smith, Willie Watson, Gillian Welch, Jack White, and Oscar Isaac.
- The Way of Folk – Interview with T Bone Burnett and the Coen Brothers discussing the importance of folk music.
- Before the Flood – Interview with Elijah Wald, who wrote Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Topics include the Greenwich Village folk scene and the folk environment before the arrival of Bob Dylan.
- Sunday – Short documentary covering April 9th of 1961 and the barring of folk musicians in New York’s Washington Square Park from attending their weekend song festival.
While the bizarre non-linear narrative may put off most casual viewers, the incredible music performances alone makes this film a jaw dropping must see. The film does a wonderful dance from deeply serious moments to incredible comedic ones. The Coen Brothers comedic timing is incredibly tight here and it makes a lot of the darkest moments of the film shine in a wonderful way. Whether a deeply invested fan of folk music or a weekend warrior of the genre, this film is sure to impress.