Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Max Casella, Adam Driver
Running time: 105 minutes
Written by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
Don't expect the Coen brothers to make all your hopes and dreams come true. They've never been much interested in inspiring. Inside Llewyn Davis isn't a parable about a down-on-his-luck folk singer who hits the jackpot with a little elbow grease, instead, it's a sparse yet intimate portrait of failure.
Inspired by the memoir of folkie Dave Von Ronk, the film follows Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling musician left a bitter shell of his former self by the suicide of his former band partner, the disappointment of his family, and the detachment of the only person he seems to love. With tireless couch surfing, gig-hopping, and a last-ditch road trip to record producer's home base in Chicago to revive his career, the Coen brothers make you feel that time is running out for Davis. Restricting the film to covering a single week in 1961 only serves to punctuate this. Davis knows everything is changing around him, as he's on the advent of Bob Dylan, a time when folk singers reviving old numbers were becoming overshadowed by the arrival of original singer-songwriters. But instead of evolving with the times, he's clutching onto the past, making him a bitter and angry schmuck to everyone with a suggestion about switching up his act. His dreams are a burden to those around him. But thanks to a revelatory performance by the multi-talented Oscar Isaac, whose record would easily fit into Bleecker Bob's collection in the 1960s, Davis becomes a sympathetic character whose tired, sunken eyes beg you to forgive his meanness.
Davis can't help but be lost in a dream, which doesn't become more evident than in the striking cinematography of the film (thanks to Bruno Delbonnel). The picture is layered with misty gray hues, making the sludge of the snow and the oil-stained New York City streets stand out like an Instagram filter set to Brannan. It looks like Llewyn's memory, or a fading photograph. Only his beautifully crafted folk covers to levitate his, and the audience's, mood.
And this is where the Coen bros signature sense of humor lift the doom and gloom of Llewyn Davis, that, to some, might become a bit taxing. Supporting performances by John Goodman, as Roland Turner, a jazz man who operates like he's on the brink of death; Garrett Hedlund, his silent chauffeur; Adam Driver, an urban cowboy of sorts whose talent is only good for gimmicky music; and Carey Mulligan, so biting as Jean, the one that got away, keep the film buoyant. They all speak a pared-down version of American English characteristic of the Coens.
As Joel Coen mentioned in the Q&A that followed immediately after the film's press screening at the NYFF, "All the success movies have been done." Consider this film a reality check for starving artists gripping onto the idea that their vision is enough. The way of the world doesn't bend for you. Either get with it or get going.