“Inside Llewyn Davis” stars Oscar Isaac as the titular folk-singer, struggling with his career, an elusive housecat, and his own self-destructive impulses in the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene. He plays not enough gigs to live on, crashes on the couch of anyone who’ll take him for a night or two, and manages to clash with just about everyone, including his sister (Jeanine Seralles), a beautiful fellow folksinger and regretful one-night stand (Carey Mulligan), and an aging, dope-addict jazz musician (John Goodman). F. Murray Abraham, Garrett Hedlund and Justin Timberlake round out the impressive cast.
The Coen brothers have always been masters of the indelible incident, the small and idiosyncratic moment that reveals character and theme. Here, the mood is kept on a slow simmer, and the confused, rising sadness in Davis’ life is revealed gradually in a patient, painstaking script, adding up to a full and rewarding picture of a life that is anything but full and rewarding. The wet sock at the coffee counter, the deafening silence after an audition, the diffident mention of a suicide that is never fully explained (and doesn’t need to be). Even the name of the cat bent on escape and return becomes a meaningful nugget, revealed at the perfect moment.
Though Davis is a composite of the lives and personalities of several singers, the creation of “Llewyn Davis” had its spark in a memoir of life in the Greenwich Village folk scene written by performer Dave Van Wronk (one of Van Wronk’s own albums inspired both the title of the film and the film’s faux cover photo of Davis’ debut disc). There’s a rich but uncluttered sense of place and time in Davis’ surroundings, and the ache beneath Davis’ dour personality is shaded by the Coen’s reliably wry sense of humor, the melancholy lyricism in the editing, and in Bruno Delbonnel’s Oscar-nominated cinematography.
The music, so critical given the setting, is overseen by the Coen’s go-to guy T-Bone Burnett (with Marcus Mumford), and feels genuine and respectfully precise in its mood and variety. Anyone expecting Christopher Guest Folksmen-style satire is to be disappointed. The music was mostly recorded live by the cast, and Isaac plays and sings with fluid ease, as do the rest of the cast (all except for that Timberlake fellow, what kind of musician is he?) Given the beautiful ballads scattered throughout, it’s amusingly ironic that the only number in the film that IS satirical– a hokey, zippy novelty number called “Please Mr. Kennedy”–was nominated for a Golden Globe.
Isaac is perfectly cast, and carries himself with just the right casual but aggrieved slouch, tossing out barbed asides and resentful excuses with a bitter, evasive shrug. He is sympathetic without being particularly likeable. Watch the way he smokes—even the cigarette looks like it doesn’t really want to be around him. Listen the new-found grit in his voice during the final, emotive song—it’s a gem of a performance, haunted by regretted decisions and a sense of lost opportunities.
Goodman has long been a lively member of the Coen’s sort-of repertory company, and has another gem of a part here. He makes great use of limited screen time as an ailing, voodoo-dabbling jazzer with only edgy, hilarious contempt for folksingers and their chord progressions and their “oo-kuleles.” His goatee is even killer. Abraham and Seralles are excellent in small roles, and Carey Mulligan brings an acidic regret and even more acidic vocabulary as Davis’ regretful friend.
With grace and economy, and a poignant sense of humor, “Inside Llewyn Davis” captures the personality of a fascinating character struggling in the “lost time” between the golden age of the first folk explosion and the arrival of Bob Dylan.
The Blu-ray of “inside Llewyn Davis” is presented in 1080p High Definition, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The disc looks simply fantastic, and Bruno Delbonnel’s wintry, gray-tone camera work is given an excellent transfer. The contrast of shadow and spotlight in the club scenes is a highlight. There are options for English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
The audio track does not disappoint, in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio offering. The intimate quality of the musical performances is captured with precision, and a careful treble/bass balance. Listen to the ring of the Irish vocal quartet on their four-part harmonies—very, very nice.
An excellent, lengthy making-of documentary, packed with interviews with cast and crew, and in-depth info about the recording of the soundtrack. As these things go, top of the heap really.
Insightful, lyrical, funny, and regretful all at once, “Inside Llewyn Davis” finds the Coen brothers at the top of their singular game, star Oscar Isaac giving a remarkable central performance, and a choice soundtrack to top it off.