inside-llewyn-davis

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen don’t so much make films as construct hopscotch paths around the decidedly homespun, deliciously oddball characters that they must dream up in some cozy, unassuming Midwestern lab. Case in point, their stunning latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis, in which the Minnesota Bros. use the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village Folk scene of the early 60’s to spin a yarn that is one part toe-tapping ode to this proudly unplugged art form, and one part On The Road– if Kerouac were a well-meaning mooch with a chip on his shoulder.

That it also happens to be their sharpest look at making it in the biz since Barton Fink, and feature one of the best performances of the year – care of Oscar Isaac – are simply added cherries on top of this T-Bone Burnett composed sundae. Of course, this being the Coen’s, if you’re looking for easy answers – or resolution – perhaps you should look elsewhere.

A lot of people think Llewyn Davis (Isaac) is a bastard. June (Carey Mulligan), his acrimonious lover – who also happens to be the wife and music partner of his best friend, Jim (Justin Timberlake) – definitely falls into that category. As does the nefarious stranger who feels the need to kick the crap out of him when we first meet our titular hero. Luckily however, the ornery troubadour does know how to win em’ over with a song, especially at his neighborhood haunt, the famous Greenwich Village folk institution, The Gaslight Café.

It’s here that Davis and his old partner, Mike, first made a name for themselves as a duo on the rise with their barebones yet harmonious versions of genre classics. Now though, Mike’s left him, his only home is whatever couch he’s offered, and worst of all, he’s forced to watch usurpers like Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) and even Jim, find increasing success in a music business that, like almost everyone else, just doesn’t seem to get him. It’s not fair, but then again, not much is in Llewyn’s life, delicately unspooled in hilarious and heartbreaking interactions with everyone (or everything) from a tabby cat to a wacked out bop-pianist (John Goodman) who clearly enjoys hearing the sound of his own voice.

Yes, Llewyn repeatedly draws the short stick in life, a fact that only seems to heighten his quirky magnetism, thanks to the inimitable Brothers Coen. Master filmmakers, and obviously fans of the charmingly low-fi sound of this neglected period, they don’t so much unravel the details of the musician’s chaotic existence as allow us to watch Davis himself unravel. Using his intimate performances (all composed by the invaluable T-Bone Burnett) and knee jerk responses to the world around him, they create a portrait that is as juicily enigmatic as it is real.

In what can best be described as a very loose adaptation of under-appreciated folkie, Dave Von Ronk’s posthumous 2005 memoir: The Mayor Of MacDougal Street, Joel and Ethan envision a chilly, grey New York (gorgeously lit by Oscar Nominee Bruno Delbonel) where heart and home are two very different things but music unites all.

It’s a delicate balance for any director to strike, yet aided by a cast of talented actor/musicians – most notably, their gifted leading man – the Oscar-winning siblings manage to hit every high note. Isaac, an invaluable character actor who’s turned in memorable performances in films as varied as 2007’s The Life Before Her Eyes and 2011’s Drive, invests Llewyn with such bruising honesty and skittish grace that he makes you not only root for the lovable lug, but also understand him in a film that doesn’t always force you to. It’s a star-making role; one that Isaac instantly makes his own, right down to his flat out beautiful musical performances.

The rest of the cast isn’t too shabby either, with standouts, Goodman, Sands, and Girls star Adam Driver – as an urban cowboy with a fathoms-deep baritone -providing some much needed laughs, and Mulligan employing her best efforts to put her own spin on a role that Laura Linney mastered around the turn of the millennium.

Characteristically fine fare from the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis represents the best that this business has to offer: unquestionably talented artists working together to make a film that sings, even when it struggles to remain on the well-lit path.