Inside Llewyn Davis, the newest movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, might be different than what audiences expected. The subject matter, a down and luck singer struggling in his day to day life, may cause viewers to think that the film is a comedy in the style of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but Inside Llewyn Davis is a darker, more personal picture for the Coens. The directors have always asserted an interest in dysfunctional and eccentric characters; even when the Coens switch genres, they always keep their movies actor-based. Inside Llewyn Davis does not break off from this successful formula, but it stresses its individuality even more so than the Coens’ other work, it’s absurdly funny yet heartbreaking at the same time.
The title character, played by Oscar Isaac, is a small folk musician playing in early 60s New York, just before Bob Dylan hit the scene. Llewyn is a talented artist but his career wanders nowhere. Much like Larry Gopnick, the protagonist of the brothers’ A Serious Man, Llewyn suffers a string of ill fortune. He’s constantly in debt, homeless, accidentally loses his friend’s cat, and may have impregnated fellow musician Jean (Carey Mulligan), who demands an abortion worried that it will upset her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake). Unlike Gopnick, though, who questions his bad luck as a result to his faith to God, Llewyn is partially responsible for his troubles. Llewyn agonizes and irritates everyone around him with his troubles and irrepressible attitude and never takes full ownership of his profession; after working on a professional song, Llewyn turns down royalties to get a quick and easy check. “You’re like King Midas’ idiot brother,” Jean tells him. “Everything you touch turns to s**t.”
Joel and Ethan Coen don’t supply a direct linear story but a series of events for the plot as Llewyn climbs from one place or another. The longest section of Inside Llewyn Davis is when Llewyn heads to Chicago to meet folk producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) about his solo album. He takes a lift with a beatnik pair of Jazz players (John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund). Goodman’s character, who stoned and wearily lies in the back of the car, asks Llewyn what music does he play. When Llewyn tells his he does folk songs, Goodman replies with deadpan grace, “I thought you said you were a musician.”
Combining melancholy and humor has always been a strength for the Coen brothers and Inside Llewyn Davis may epitomize that trait for the directors. Even the most depressing moments are tinged with comic timing, though not coming off as if the Coens are laughing at Llewyn; Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography combines saturated colors in such a way the convey the dark mood it feels as black and white as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Rather, they portray him as a man who could have been something, a big star. Llewyn may have his faced shoved on the ground but it’s clear that Joel and Ethan Coen admire the man. Isaac’s performance helps build up Llewyn as a character and makes him unsympathetic yet hard to dislike. His singing and biting humor make him perfect for the role. Other members of the cast also help set Inside Llewyn Davis‘ tone. Carey Mulligan, one of the best actresses working today (and also costarred with Isaac in Drive), provides a biting edge, similar to other women counterparts in the Coens’ work. John Goodman, reuniting with the brothers for the first time in thirteen years, also gives the movie many of its best laughs in his small role.
Collaborating with T-Bone Burnett, who worked with the duo for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens populate their soundtrack with a great number of folk songs, from “Hang Me, O Hang Me” sung by Oscar Isaac with disparity to the closing tune of Bob Dylan’s “Farewell,” surely hinting a new age of folk. The best of Inside Llewyn Davis‘ soundtrack is “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a incredibly funny song about the Space Race sung by Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver. It’s well worth buying the score, which will surely charm people who even don’t enjoy folk music.
Sharp, cunning, and gloomy all at the same time, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of Joel and Ethan Coen’s best movies and their strongest since No Country For Old Men. It’s an in-tune comic masterpiece that is the finest film I’ve seen thus far in 2013.