Much like the somber melodies that float throughout its 105-minute runtime, Inside Llewyn Davis will remain lodged in your head weeks after you and the film first meet. With Oscar Isaac's "Fare thee we-e-ell..." ringing daintily in your ears, you'll shuffle out from the grasp of the Coen Brothers' wonderland of gray, but you won't soon be able to relieve yourself of what is arguable the pair's best film yet. Llewyn's is a story so outstandingly simple — he's a man who's s**t out of luck, and not especially deserving of any. He wakes up, loses his friend's cat, plays some music, and wishes things were better. And yet his is the Coens' most invigorating and deftly human tale yet.
Llewyn Davis makes the bold, but practical, choice of never insisting that we love its hero. He's effectively a jackass, justifying all the waste he has incurred with the rudeness he showers on the majority of those in his acquaintance. But Llewyn Davis isn't the villain here, either. The villain is the industry, and all the uphill battles inherent to its machinations. The villain isn't Llewyn's substantially more successful contacts — an old pal Jim (Justin Timberlake) and new fellow couch-surfer Troy (Stark Sands), but the listening public that prefers their saccharine pop to his dreary drips of misery. The villain isn't Llewyn's resentful old flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), no matter how many volatile admonitions she might shoot his way, but the act of God surrounding their unwitting adherence to one another. And it's not even the cantankerous and foul Roland Turner (a delightfully hammy John Goodman), but the endless, frigid open road of which each man is a prisoner (if the film has one flaw, it's that this segment carries on just a bit too long, but that might very well be the point). The villain is the cold.
Call it all a raw deal. But the real dynamism isn't in the challenges that happen outside Llewyn Davis, but in the determined toxicity brewing inside as he meets each and every one.
But this isn't the Coen Brothers' Murphy's Law comedy A Serious Man — we don't watch a chaotic pileup of every imaginable trick that the devil can manage to pull. Llewyn is steady throughout, not burying Llewyn deeper but keeping him on the ground, with the fruit-bearing branches forever out of his reach. In its narrative, Llewyn Davis is as close to natural life as any of the filmmakers' works to date. Perfectly exhibited in a late scene involving a trip to Akron, Llewyn isn't a cinematic construct, but the sort of person we know, so painfully, that we are very likely to be... on our bad days.
Still, working in such a terrific harmony with the grounded feel of Llewyn himself, we have that Coen whimsy in their delivery of 1960s New York City — rather, a magic kingdom painted in the stellar form of a 1960s New York City. And not the New York City we're given by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Closer, maybe, to Spike Lee or Sydney Lumet, but still a terrain unique to moviegoers. A New York that's always recovering from a hostile rain, and always promising another 'round the bend. One that flickers like a dying bulb, with its million odd beleaguered moths buzzing around it against the pull of logic. There is something so incredibly alive about the Coens' crying city; this hazy dream world's partnership with half-dead, anchored-to-earth portrait like Llewyn is the product of such sophisticated imagination at play.
And to cap this review of one of the best features 2013 has given us, it's only appropriate to return to the element in which its identity is really cemented: the music. Without the tunes bobbing through the story, we'd still likely find something terrific in Llewyn Davis. But the music, as beautiful as it is, is the reason for the story. As we watch Isaac's hopeless sad sack drag himself through Manhattan's winter, past the helping hands of friends and into the grimaces of strangers, as we struggle with our own handfuls of nihilistic skepticism that any of this yarn is worth the agony (or that our attention to its meandering nature is worth the price of a ticket), we are given the rare treat of an answer. Of course it's all for something. Of course it's all about something. It's about that beautiful, beautiful music.
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Set in 1949 in the quiet California town of Santa Rosa the story centers on Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) who is a second-chair barber in his brother-in-law Frank's barbershop (Michael Badalucco). Ed's wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with
her boss hotshot department store owner Big Dave (James Gandolfini). When Ed gets an investment tip on the future of dry cleaning he decides it's time to cash in his chips so he blackmails Big Dave. Big Dave married to wealthy heiress Ann (Katherine Borowitz) is not about to let this
financial pressure get the better of him (come on now this is Tony Soprano Ed's messing with). Things quickly spiral out of control (someone's murdered) slow down (Ed narrates Ed smokes narrates smokes some more) and then just get weird (something involving UFO sightings and a teenage pianist) before coming to an electrifying end.
The film's lineup is impressive: Thornton McDormand Gandolfini Badalucco Scarlett Johansson Tony Shalhoub. Yet the cast seems as constrained as a prisoner in jail waiting for breaks in Ed's narration to shine. The reliance on voice-over narration
to get the story across impedes the dramatic and comedic timing and much of the acting except of course that of the Bogart-like Ed. We're captivated by him whether we like it or not--he is the only one that can tell us what the hell is going on. Unfortunately he loses a lot of credibility because although he assures us he's a quiet man of few words he never shuts up.
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (Fargo) did what they set out to do--which was create an impressive smart modern take on '40s film-noir classics like The Postman Always Rings Twice. Watch this movie for the unprecedented black-and-white cinematography of Roger Deakins who takes inspiration from the Coens and turns what many moviegoers expect from a black-and-white picture on its head. Mainstream audiences may have difficulty with the slow methodical pace of this movie and some things drag the film down like the UFO subplot. But the Coens have a reason for all things leaving much to the viewer's interpretation. Perhaps the directors employed the same theory as the defense attorney does in the movie the 'uncertainty principle'--the more you look at something the less you know.