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.
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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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Cameron (Summer Glau) looks pretty good after her season-finale explosion, with just a cut on her face. She picks herself back up and drags her way to rescue Sarah (Lena Headey) and John (Thomas Dekker) from some gun-toting intruders. The intruders pick up the hard drive our heroes worked so hard to steal last year, and of course the scuffle leads to the whole house burning down. That’s just collateral damage in the Terminator world.
Uh-oh, it looks like Cameron’s reprogrammed herself to terminate John. That’s not good. Luckily that house fire blows her away, so Sarah and John can escape. Meanwhile, Cromartie (Garret Dillahunt) lets Agent Ellison (Richard T. Jones) go after he’d terminated the whole SWAT team at the motel pool. That’s odd. Cromartie leaves the body of George Laslo, the identity he stole, to take the fall for the motel shootout.
On the run, Sarah gets distracted and crashes the car, leaving the duo to limp away from an also limping Cameron. Charley Dixon (Dean Winters), Sarah’s former paramedic beau, leaves the scene of the motel and follows a call to the Connor house fire. He finds the two burned bodies of the intruders, and an incognito Derek Reese (Brian Austin Green), who fills him--and us--in on the exposition of the Turk chess computer from last season. It’s the program that provides the initial basis of Skynet’s artificial intelligence. Got that?
Now we meet Catherine Weaver (Garbage singer Shirley Manson), who’s making a deal to buy the Turk. That’ll pay off later. Elsewhere, Cameron cleans up with baby wipes and staples her face back together. (Gotta love Terminator first aid!) She finds Charley and Derek following leads on Sarah and John, so they are in double pursuit. Her limping stagger kind of looks like Arnold going in slow motion in the movies. It’s intense.
Sarah and John find a church in which they can nurse their wounds and hide out. John realizes how powerful the now-evil Cameron is, with all her knowledge of the Connors. Out of anger, John jams a knife into the table; anyone who obsessed over T2 should appreciate that. They come up with a nifty plan to shock Cameron when she comes looking for them. They try to carve out her CPU chip (remember the director’s cut of T2!) but run out of time, so she wakes up even more pissed. John and Sarah try to flee by stolen van, but Cameron overturns their vehicle!
The chase continues like an epic Terminator chase. All attempts to stop Cameron fail, so the heroes flee, despite increasing injuries. There are even more loving homages to lines from the films for fans. Sarah ultimately helps incapacitate Cameron, giving John the chance to shut down Cameron. Cameron protests, even begs and pleads with human-like fear, insisting she’s fixed herself and she’s good again. As a last resort, she professes love! John pauses, but pulls the chip.
John still has some questions about Cameron, feeling that she must be different if his future self sent her back. He almost incinerates her but reinserts her chip to find out for sure if her new emotions were real or fake. He gives her a gun to test her. Her POV does show an order to terminate, but she overrides it and wins back John’s trust. The stakes of this drama are amazingly high. I mean, if you’re believing in a world of Terminators, the idea of the most important human putting his life in an assassin robot’s hands is staggering. And clearly, this is a defining moment for John. He is not the same after it.
Sarah and Cameron talk religion, and Cameron tells her never to let John bring her back if she goes bad again. Sarah offers the best apology she’s able to as John reveals he’s cut his hair, just in case you didn’t get that this is a new John.
Throughout this, Ellison gets a few scenes. He answers all his superior’s debriefing questions with “I don’t know.” He confronts Cromartie again, insisting he’ll never help him find the Connors, but Cromartie seems to have a plan.
With her Turk, Weaver announces a new division for her company. An employee complains about her new decision in the men’s room, and she rises out of the urinal as a liquid metal T-1000 to kill him.
This could really be the best episode in what is already my favorite series on TV. The pilot was amazing for showing Terminator action, redefining the timeline legitimately, and just bringing back Sarah. Dungeons and Dragons was awesome for future war stuff, but man, this Cameron chase, character decisions and introducing the ultimate movie villain step it up to the next level. So yeah, there’s a T-1000 running a computer company. Cameron could flip her good/evil switch at any time. John’s dissing his mom (who, don’t forget, is the title of the show), and Ellison is about to become a free agent. Wow!