Ethan Coen summed it up perfectly when he described Inside Llewyn Davis as "an odyssey in which the main character doesn't go anywhere" during the film's postscreening Q&A at the 51st New York Film Festival. The latest Coen brothers creation follows a struggling musician in 1961 New York City and includes a colorful cast of characters (Carey Mulligan, Coens regular John Goodman and Justin Timberlake, to name a few).
Inside Llewyn Davis comprises countless beloved Coen stylings: it's atmospheric, boasts a lackadaisical protagonist, has punchy dialogue and dips into the darkly comedic. It's also a beautiful character study, with the kind of antihero lead performance that can only carry weight when embodied by a truly great actor. We're looking at you, Oscar Isaac.
Despite the trademark Coen touches, Inside Llewyn Davis is a surprisingly quiet, understated film, one that rests solidly on Isaac's shoulders. Its themes dually repel and fascinate -- there's something inherently human and relatable about Llewyn, despite the fact that he's a walking cautionary tale. It's a performance that requires incredible nuance, along with a formidable supporting cast and deft screenplay to highlight it. Inside Llewyn Davis has all of this in spades. It's difficult, earnest, funny, heartbreaking and evocative all at once.
Here are five things you'll mull over long after the credits roll on this Coen brothers oeuvre high point:
Sure, you were terrified by him in Drive and Sucker Punch and swooned over him in 10 Years, but Llewyn is a different character entirely. And Isaac proves he's not just an emotive actor and fantastic singer -- he's also capable of incredible vulnerability and restraint. He may play the patron saint of artistic pariahs, a guy weighing on the very last nerve of every embodiment of goodwill he encounters, who can't seem to catch a professional break, but it's also easy to see why he's not flat-out rejected by his friends and managers: the guy's got charisma, and he's sincere as heck. Isaac delicately thrums the nuance from what could be a chord of depressive hanger-on to the tune of a man reconciling his identity and creative voice, and floundering. He single-handedly carries a Coen brothers film – that fact alone proves he's poised to be a huge star.
The desaturated and perpetually cloudy look of the Coens' world is an all-too-appropriate palette upon which to soundtrack the somber pre-Bob Dylan tunes of the American folk revival. The Coens once again pair with T Bone Burnett to create a gorgeous, evocative soundtrack (which also spawned the recent star-studded "Another Day, Another Time" concert in New York City) sure to follow in the footsteps of the Grammy-winning O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack and its "Down from the Mountain" tour. The film revives classics with fresh artists (Marcus Mumford, Isaac and Timberlake, to name a few), underscoring the fact that the film captures the moment right before old and new musical styles collide. This is the kind of music that lodges in your brain and lives inside you.
THE VOCAL STYLINGS OF ADAM DRIVER
Speaking of the soundtrack, there's one particular song, "Please Mr. Kennedy," that features a small-yet-dire contribution from Adam Driver. You may think you know the up-and-coming actor, thanks to his memorable turn as Lena Dunham's quirky sometimes boyfriend in Girls, not to mention recent appearances in Frances Ha and Lincoln, but as it turns out, hearing is believing. More specifically: Driver's effusive, impossibly amazing baritone vocal track in the song. It's not enough to hear it, either. You have to watch it unfold in a recording studio. It all but steals the show.
Move over, Holly Golightly, there's a new no-name feline about town! Llewyn's unlikely couch-surfing cohort may be reminiscent of the orange cat in Breakfast at Tiffany's, but that's where the similarities end. Llewyn's cat is bold and savvy -- he cannot be contained by windows or doors, he rides the subway and wanders city streets. He's the furry bane of Llewyn's futile existence, the subject of hilarious postdinner conversations, a road-trip complication, and much more. This is a cat worthy of a costar credit.
NEW YORK CITY
Sure, it's easier to breathe in the majesty of New York's neighborhoods and landmarks when you're not scrambling to find shelter on the regular, a la Llewyn, but in classic Coen brothers style the film is an atmospheric marvel, a time capsule containing the New York City of the early 1960s. Whether it's the original molding and French door-ensconced spaces of an Upper West Side apartment, the rickety squeals and tile-walled embellishments of the subway, the winding back alleys and smoke-filled dim lighting of Greenwich Village music lounges, the legendary arch and fountain in Washington Square Park or the storied shot of espresso at Cafe Reggio, Inside Llweyn Davis makes you yearn for it, whether you're a native or vicarious New Yorker.
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