Joel and Ethan Coen, otherwise known as the Coen brothers, have built an impressive filmography over the last 30 years. Starting with their 1984 cult classic Blood Simple and going all the way through 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, they’ve made films that are both dramatic and darkly comedic (each one successfully maintains the tone it establishes). Following 2010’s multiple Oscar-nominated True Grit (a new adaptation of the book it was based on rather than a remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne), the Coens took some time off and came back in 2013 with Inside Llewyn Davis. It was one of my most highly anticipated films of the year, and I was glad that the film met my expectations when I finally got to see it on the big screen.
Inside Llewyn Davis follows a week in the life of a folk singer named Llewyn Davis and depicts his struggles on the music scene in 1961 New York City. The film starts with a performance by Llewyn at the Gaslight, followed by him getting beaten up in an alley. We’re then treated to the events leading up to Llewyn’s beating. Llewyn usually sleeps on the couches of friends/acquaintances who are still willing to take him in. He has also been a solo act since his music partner Mike had committed suicide some time before by jumping off the George Washington Bridge; the pain of losing his friend is something Llewyn has yet to deal with and is perhaps the reason he tries to push people away. The odyssey he undertakes starts when a cat belonging to his friends the Gorfeins goes missing and he attempts to find it. His journey brings him to his married friends Jim and Jean, and then a road trip to Chicago with a beat poet and a jazz musician. Along the way, Llewyn finds and loses the cat a few times as he continues to struggle as a folk singer.
Oscar Isaac is phenomenal as Llewyn Davis (who was partially inspired by folk singer Dave Van Ronk). He brings warmth and vulnerability to a character that is at times not very likeable, but despite his rude behavior Llewyn is still sympathetic enough that you still want to root for him to succeed. Carey Mulligan is terrific as Jean Berkey, one of Llewyn’s married friends. Her screen time isn’t as large as one might expect, and she spends most of that time being pissed at Llewyn (largely because he might have been the cause of her pregnancy). However, Mulligan still manages to shine. Other smaller roles are inhabited by John Goodman (as Roland Turner, the jazz musician), Justin Timberlake (as Jim Berkey, Jean’s husband), Garrett Hedlund (as Johnny Five, the beat poet), F. Murray Abraham (as Bud Grossman), Ethan Phillips (as Mitch Gorfein, one of Llewyn’s older friends), and Max Casella (as Pappi Corsicato, the guy who runs the Gaslight).
The Coens did a great job with their writing, directing, and editing. The film moves at a good pace and never feels sluggish (unlike the cold weather Llewyn experiences in the film). Bruno Delbonnel’s well deserved Oscar-nominated cinematography is fantastic, creating a muted color scheme that reflects the state of mind that Llewyn is currently in. Jess Gonchor’s production design is magnificent, especially the recreation of early 1960s New York City (which was achieved largely through impressive green screen composition). The musical performances were outstanding (the highlight being “Please Mr. Kennedy”). Most of the songs performed were recorded live, bringing a well-deserved Best Sound Mixing Oscar nomination to sound mixer Peter F. Kurland and sound re-recording mixers Skip Lievsay and Greg Orloff. Inside Llewyn Davis is another fine entry in the Coens’ filmography, and you’d have to be a fool to skip out on this little gem. If you haven’t already seen it, don’t hesitate any longer.