Director(s): Joel and Ethan Coen
Runtime: 105 minutes
Though undoubtedly a small movie, it would be a mistake to dismiss Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen's folk music character study, as a forgettable or minor work in their careers. Firmly anchored by Oscar Isaac's lead performance, this melancholy story is filled with typical Coen quirks, yet ventures into a level of sincerity the brothers rarely tackle. Bound to deepen upon reflection and/or repeated viewings, this deceptively small movie makes its mark thanks to its gently played undercurrent of resilience in the face of sadness.
The titular Llewyn Davis (Isaac) likely won't go down as one of the Coen's more likable protagonists. Though certainly no villain, Llewyn is a great deal less sympathetic than the brother's last lead, True Grit's Mattie Ross. Though he's far from old, Llewyn carries himself like a man who's already been pushed to wit's end (this is nicely complimented by Bruno Delbonnel's blue-hued, wintery images). When we first meet him, Llewyn is singing his heart out into a microphone, and for a while it looks like he's performing in a vacuum as he pours out his soul. As the scene pulls back, however, we see that all of Llewyn's passion is being put forth in a dingy bar, with an audience that is appreciative and engaged, but not exactly enraptured. Llewyn's doing his best to communicate the only way he really knows how, but the gulf between artist and audience is quite a large one.
If Llewyn's interaction with his audience is lacking, his ability to interact with friends and family is even more dire. There are friends like Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Mitch (Ethan Phillips), but they seem like distance acquaintances at best (although not too distant that Llewyn won't abuse their hospitality). Then there are people like Jim's wife Jean (Carey Mulligan), who rightfully has nothing but contempt for Llewyn or anything he stands for. Through a series of tautly written, intelligently acted scenes, the Coens establish a whole host of relationships from Llewyn's POV, thus firmly planting him in his head. We spend time viewing events from his perspective, even as the direction is wise enough to avoid siding with Llewyn's thoughts and actions.
The surprisingly fleet pacing, with conversations often ending with hard cuts to a new shot, is what gives Inside Llewyn Davis a defiant lack of heaviness. The Coens aren't interested in misery porn or yanking at heart strings. Though the story's setting and music make it ripe for noxious sentimentality, the directors never betray their own level of emotional restraint, even as they branch into more sincere territory. Rather than blast emotions at the viewer, the film mostly underplays things - events, backstories, details - thus allowing them room to reverberate with the viewer throughout (and after) the whole film.
For all that there is to say about the writing and directing, it would be foolish as well to say that the film isn't an actors' piece of sorts. Isaac, in his first real leading role, is nothing short of outstanding, whether he's singing, arguing, or merely observing and laying low. Isaac's turn is so key to the film, that whether or not you respond to it will likely come down to how to connect (or don't) to the actor's approach to him, as well as the film's.
Supporting roles, meanwhile, often feel like hazily sketched satellites orbiting Llewyn's life. This is true of some (Jim and Mitch, Mitch's wife), but in characters like Jean the film is able to communicate so much with so little. In large part, that's due to what Mulligan pulls off, starting with bigger, noisier scenes before quieting down and hinting at a fuller, more authentic personality. Even F. Murray Abraham, who only appears in one scene, gives a performance that feels lived in. It's just not his life that we as a viewer are oriented around.
The most valuable supporting player, however, is the music. Though little (if any) is original, music supervisor T. Bone Burnett (along with Isaac) has done a beautiful job of compiling a series of songs that work perfectly in sync with the story. It's hard to imagine swapping any songs in terms of order, given how carefully they've been positioned throughout the film. Details like this emphasize what makes Inside Llewyn Davis so special, despite its narrative and emotional modesty.
The level of care present in every scene and shot may not always be immediately apparent, but the film moves in ways that have a confident sense of purpose. Llewyn hops from place to place, and the film hops from scene to scene, yet no excursion is without purpose. Inside Llewyn Davis is undoubtedly a small film, but it's anything but minor. It's an understated dark comedy handled with unparalleled restraint, which is precisely why it's so deeply felt.