Inside Llewyn Davis ★★★★½

Although the trademark cynicism of writers and directors Joel and Ethan Coen endures in their latest project, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” it is one of their most distinctively empathetic films yet, in its portrayal of struggling artists in New York City during the 1960s’ folk music scene. Gorgeously shot through an almost murky filter capturing the haze of the lifestyle, the film explores the aimlessness of youth and the vicious cycles anyone can become trapped in under the wrong circumstances.
The eponymous Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, is a homeless musician, rotating through each of his friends’ homes depending on whom he hasn’t alienated at any given time, never able to hold onto money for very long, and mentally adrift ever since the vaguely alluded to break-up with his former musical partner. Past events, recent and old alike, weigh heavily on him and his interactions with his others.

As a film about members of a music community, especially one that is technically a musical because it features its cast performing music live at a constant rate throughout, the soundtrack is of particular importance, and the Coens do not disappoint in their latest addition to the various music featured in their work. The music that permeates through the story is organically written in and absolutely beautiful, from Llewyn’s soulful rendition of Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, to the charming highlight Please Mr. Kennedy. The rest of the soundtrack complements those songs perfectly and is gracefully married to the scenes it plays over. All the music is indeed affecting, but the camera work and Isaac’s brilliant, understated performance effectively filters them through the lens of Llewyn’s experience, his own performances being profound to him while those of others are goofy and unimpressive. As vital as the music by itself is, what’s even more important to its story and themes is that aspect of the musical performances, just a part of how the film as a whole vividly captures the bitterness that is familiar to many artists, bitterness towards peers and the public unresponsive to one’s work alike.

Oscar Isaac’s marvelously subtle and raw performance is at the heart of the film’s exploration of artists that fall short of their big dreams, and their painful, turbulent emotions. Almost as vital are the strained relationships between him and Jim and Jean Berkey, the husband and wife singing duo played earnestly by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, and the nature of the jazz musician Roland Turner, a viciously cruel man played with hilarious bombast by John Goodman. Turner sneers and holds his nose up to all other music, as way of comfort and consolation for audiences’ rejection of him. He serves as the world holding a mirror up to Llewyn, to see his worst possible self and the path he’s going down, but he does not heed or even seem to notice the warning. Goodman’s performance is as dynamic as some of his best work, while Mulligan and Timberlake turn in equally great, albeit far more understated work as they phase in and out of Llewyn’s life, in the nature of the film.

The Coen Brothers are ultimately showing of a piece of Llewyn’s eccentric, unique life, and his alone, all others in his mind being supporting players, and through that piece of his life speak to all their fellow artists, knowing their pains. In turn, they have given the world one of their finest works yet. Although its melancholy tone and subject matter will likely turn off more than a few, those deeply attached to music of the time and as a whole, and anyone who dreams big, will find solidarity here.

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