Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Joel and Ethan Coen)

Just over half way into Inside Llewyn Davis, there’s a moment where lead Oscar Isaac looks into the face of responsibility–weighs it, weighs the consequences of not accepting it, makes his decision. Until that moment, the Coen Brothers hadn’t candidly identified the film as a character study. It happens in the middle of an epical sequence–the film splits into three (really, five) sections–and they don’t stop the existing momentum. It just changes, ever minutely, how Isaac is going to relate to the viewer. The film acknowledges the viewer wants to make a judgement of the protagonist–as one well should given the protagonist’s name is in the title and that title can easily be seen as an invitation–but refuses that judgement. There’s no need. After all, the film has up until that point warned the viewer and the training wheels are then off.

So with the rest of the film, the Coen Brothers do a lot of different things. They give Isaac some more excellent moments, they craft a really spectacular third act and denouement. They even acknowledge they’ve taken quite a journey–a bigger one than the viewer (or Isaac) realize–and they fit all their many pieces back into the box they so carefully unpacked in the first act.

The film concerns Isaac’s early sixties Greenwich Village folk singer and his callous behavior and interactions with other people, both in the folk music culture and out. Isaac’s performance is outstanding, as are many of the supporting performances. It’s a character study so Isaac’s is the most important and he hits every moment, ably assisted not just by the Coen Brothers’ script and direction, but the fine editing from Roderick Jaynes, who knows just how to cut a talking heads scene for emphasis.

Davis beautifully recreates the period–Jess Gonchor production designing–and Bruno Delbonnel’s crisp photography makes it all even more vivid. It’s a quiet, precise film. Many of the actors–Carey Mulligan and John Goodman in particular–speak in short monologues. The sound is phenomenal, not just because it’s about music, but because of the tone the Coen Brothers get out their cast’s deliveries amid such static, aching quiet.

Isaac’s great, Mulligan’s great. Excellent support from Justin Timberlake (no, really), F. Murray Abraham and Jeanine Serralles. Phenomenal composition and editing from the Coen Brothers (with Jaynes’s assistance, of course).

Inside Llewyn Davis is awesome–big when it needs to be, small when it needs to be. It’s a beautiful extinguishing of hope and, better, watching as Isaac experiences that extinguishing. It’s also phenomenally plotted; I don’t want to forget about that element. The script organically layers the revelations throughout the narrative, forcing the viewer to not just identify–willingly or not–with Isaac, but also with his protagonist’s particular point of view.

It’s a singular character study.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel; edited by Roderick Jaynes; production designer, Jess Gonchor; produced by Scott Rudin, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; released by CBS Films.

Starring Oscar Isaac (Llewyn Davis), Carey Mulligan (Jean), Justin Timberlake (Jim), John Goodman (Roland Turner), Garrett Hedlund (Johnny Five), Jeanine Serralles (Joy), Adam Driver (Al Cody), Stark Sands (Troy Nelson) and F. Murray Abraham (Bud Grossman).


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