Written by Matt Haviland
Plot: A folk singer from Greenwich Village (Oscar Isaac) struggles to achieve fame and fortune.
Many films from 2013 required dream logic. There were impressionistic extravaganzas like Spring Breakers and Upstream Color. Other films were more straightforward, but lulled the audience into a dreamlike trance (Side Effects, The Place Beyond the Pines). This was the year where Michael Bay’s blockbuster starring The Rock and Mark Wahlberg was a hot-blooded fever dream about body builders who take a rich man hostage and then try to murder their way to legal absolution, a plot that became so absurd so quickly that they had to roll photographs of real-life criminals to prove that it was based on a true story. And these movies were just early 2013. There was a bristling energy this year. Boundless creative innovation. Blockbusters on acid. Independent films on more acid. (See: Computer Chess.)
If American cinema felt dreamlike this year, Inside Llewyn Davis is what happened when our two most celebrated directors, the Coen Brothers, opened somebody’s skull and brought cameras. The film begins with an incredible acoustic performance by breakout star Oscar Isaac. We are hypnotized (not for the last time) by G-chords while Isaac’s amateur folk singer, Llewyn Davis, plants us firmly on the gallows, with an aching tune about how it’s not death but staying in the ground that scares him. When he puts the guitar down and walks over to the bar, apologizing for what a mess he was last night, we are still swaying on warm riffs bathed in yellow spotlight. We shall continue to. Inside Llewyn Davis feels like bobbing down the river of forgetfulness cocooned in a folk song. (“And we’ve only just begun…”)
Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s is largely responsible. You may have noticed the soft lens flare in the trailers. The whole movie is bathed in that warm glow. This is especially stunning in scenes of mist and shadow. Consider Llewyn as he drives through a pitch black blizzard. We see little of the road, except for scrapes of white paint, as snowflakes pass through velocity’s terrifying blur. Another shot is unspeakably gorgeous. Llewyn stands on the side of a highway jutting straight into the fog. Headlights drift along the road like ghosts. His thumb sticks up. Sound design plays another part in the trance that is Inside Llewyn Davis. John Goodman’s overcoat whips in the wind as he spindles on two canes to the bathroom of a gas station with a creaking signpost. Smatterings of conversation clothe our exhausted hero in a train station. Otherworldly harmonies bloom between destitute folk singers at the bar.
But the story itself is a dream. Llewyn goes from one couch to another, losing someone’s cat he doesn’t remember the name of, asking an elevator operator to take care of the cat (to which the man responds, “I have to run the elevator!”), attempting his big break and meeting with strange characters around the Greenwich Village beat scene of the 1960s. Many characters feel like those grotesque supporting cast members from David Lynch films. Inside Llewyn Davis finds Joel and Ethan exploring New York City as if it were the dreamy Hollywood of Mulholland Drive. It’s recognizably Coen Brothers, sure. There are big laughs at the absurdity of mundane society and bickering conversations. But then Llewyn visits his friend’s apartment at the end of a narrow hallway that literally comes to a triangular point between two doors that face slightly perpendicular directions. Surreal landscapes tempered by the mundane.
This is a film about the commonality of sublime talent. Every performer Llewyn stumbles across is superb. A folk-singing soldier so earnest he might be autistic (Stark Sands) gets on stage and whips out the sweetest voice you’ve ever heard. In a recording booth, aspiring folk singer Al Cody (Adam Driver) emits perfectly bizarre interjections while Llewyn and minor folk success Jim (Justin Timberlake!) navigate the realm of experimental space rock. An Irish barbershop quartet is played for laughs but brings down the house, and even the badass who drives Llewyn cross country without saying a word (Garrett Hedlund) grunts out surprise poetry. This parade of colorful supporting roles reaches sizzling heights. John Goodman garners not one but several belly laughs in an outrageous dismantlement of Llewyn’s pretensions. Carey Mulligan is tremendous (and almost unrecognizable) as the folk-singing, cooing, snarling object of desire. Everyone around Llewyn burns their signature onto the celluloid… and these are just the characters who get more than three minutes. There’s also the buoyant Gaslight Club owner (Max Casella). The businesslike elevator operator (Jack O’Connell). The Coen Brothers trademark Deadpan Receptionist (Sylvia Kauders). All the while, a superb Oscar Isaac stumbles crooning, cursing, whimpering, and woofing through a luminescent dreamland populated with characters that smolder with psychedelic gusto until they blow away like ashes.
Altogether, this is the most ambitious Coen Brothers film yet. Though O Brother, Where Art Thou? is surreal, The Man Who Wasn’t There has bold lighting, and A Serious Man perfected the rhythmic pace that Llewyn follows to the conclusion, something about Inside Llewyn Davis feels greater. Maybe Joel and Ethan Coen really did dream about a deadbeat folk singer who carries his guitar through Dante’s Inferno set in the 1960s. There’s nothing particularly unrealistic about these adventures. Actually, it’s the opposite. Where other films this year succeeded in bizarre journeys through improbable landscapes, Inside Llewyn Davis is the straightforward chronicle of a hipster who wants recognition. Who loses somebody’s cat and wants to bring it home. Who creates the most affecting scenes in the Coens’ most heartfelt movie with simple close-ups, singing original songs interspersed with audience reactions.
Their films have always been honest, but heartfelt? Maybe the Ed Tom scenes in No Country for Old Men. Frances McDormand’s final monologue in Fargo. In those moments, the Coen Brothers channel the exhaustion of existence through characters who roll the rock of goodness up the mountain of human misery only to watch it thundering back. Inside Llewyn Davis reveals something about the redundancy of effort. Llewyn Davis has a beautiful voice and genius passion, but his landscape is sublime. Even the wheezy man walking on crutches looks like Buddha picking through flowers. Then the signpost hinges creak. Beauty is already there, and sticking out from perfection can be tiresome. You won’t find a more gorgeous testament to the dreamland of reality than Inside Llewyn Davis.
Rating: 10 out of 10 (Classic)