SPOILER ALERT: I'll discuss elements of this film's plot and character development, which will inevitably include some spoilers. I'd encourage you to watch this film (it's available on Amazon Prime Video for streaming) before reading the review, then come back and join in the discussion!
I watched Inside Llewyn Davis - the Coen Brothers' 2013 film about an embattled folk singer - for the first time over a weekend. I liked it so much that I watched it again that very same weekend. On the second viewing I watched it with my wife, and as we neared the end of the film, she asked a striking question.
"Why isn't he making it when he's so good?"
Why, indeed. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is incredibly talented. The film gives us direct evidence of this in the opening scene as he steps up to a solitary microphone and plays his music to an audience at The Gaslight Cafe in 1961. I was not aware of The Gaslight's significance when I first saw the film, but this movie made me go back and learn about the birth of modern folk music here and at other venues in New York's Greenwich Village. This was a place where struggling artists could make their mark and catch their big break, but Llewyn Davis hasn't made it quite yet.
There are many striking elements in this film, as can be said for any film by Joel and Ethan Coen. For me, it was the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel that stood out initially. The Coens are famous for their collaborations with the great Roger Deakins, but he was working on Skyfall at the time of this film's shooting. And so, the Coens chose to work with Delbonnel. What results is a film that looks startlingly different than any of the other Coen Brothers films I've seen before. Delbonnel finds the darkness and the murkiness in the wintery New York landscape. Later, when the story hits the road and travels to Chicago, there's a beautiful dinginess to the film's visuals. The shot from the header photo to this review is my favorite in the film, coming in a scene where Llewyn must hitchhike the rest of the way to Chicago. Delbonnel's work on this film is incredible, and it supports this story of a struggling singer looking to make it out of the muck.
It also may not surprise you that, in a film about a folk singer, the music is incredible. I listened to the soundtrack endlessly for the entire week after I watched the film. There's so much history bursting from this film, and the Coens (along with another frequent collaborator, T Bone Burnett) find so many old folk songs that jump off the screen. One of the great creative choices in this film was to use full songs, recorded live, as part of the filming. This must have been a massive undertaking, but the team behind the film pulled it off fantastically. Thanks for that is certainly due, in large part, to their ability to find a leading man who could simultaneously carry a film in the lead role through his acting and also be a fantastic musician and live performer. Oscar Isaac fills each aspect of this role beautifully, in one of his finest performances in an already stellar career.
As with any Coen Brothers' movie, the writing is incredible. Their usual flair for quirky dialogue and dark humor is present, once again, but I was also struck by their ability to hide certain cues within lines of dialogue that stand out upon repeat viewings. My favorite example of this comes when Llewyn accidentally lets out the cat of the Gorfeins (Robin Bartlett and Ethan Phillips) - the couple with whom he's currently staying. Not only did the cat escape, but the apartment door has closed behind him. Seeing no other option, he picks up the cat and heads out with it. Later, he calls the Gorfeins' neighbor to tell them he has the cat. At first she hears, "Llewyn is the cat" which Llewyn quickly corrects. At first blush, it seems like almost a throwaway - a simple daily misunderstanding. As the film progresses, however, we see that this wayward cat is a stand-in for Llewyn, making the comment a prescient clue to us as viewers.
That isn't the only reason this film rewards repeat viewings. I think, in some sense, all great films improve as you watch them more. You're able to catch more of the subtext, and you're able to appreciate more of the craft. There are so many great performances in this film (Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, and F. Murray Abraham all have supporting roles), and different ones stand out with each rewatch.
I almost placed this film into my Favorite Movies section right away, as opposed to doing one of these initial reviews. It is clear to me that this is one of the best films the Coens have made, and also one of my personal favorites of all-time. Still, I want to give some time to let the film simmer in mind. Maybe this will be the first film to make the jump from Movie Reviews to Favorite Movies? Time will tell.
Overall, the film gives a dark outlook on success. It seems that, sometimes, talent isn't enough. There are incredibly-talented people that just keep running into brick walls while others catch their big break. Time after time, Llewyn makes a seemingly small choice that later turns out to have major impact. Like the scene where he gets called in to play guitar for a recording that his friend, Jim (Justin Timberlake), has set up with Al Cody (Adam Driver). The song is catchy, but it's one of those early 60's novelty songs. It's clear that Llewyn finds it too silly and childish. After the session, he's asked how he wants to be credited on the song. He can take $200 upfront for being in the recording session, but he won't be eligible for any royalties. Llewyn takes the money, and later finds out that the song was a hit. I think this film would make a great dual showing with Martin Scorsese's 1983 satire The King of Comedy (which I recently reviewed for Filmotomy). Both films focus on characters who are driven for success, though each film comes from different perspectives and arrives at different destinations.
The first scene and the final scene are basically mirror images of each other, though the final scene adds some key pieces of context to the version we see at the beginning. This context underscores the idea that while some toil away in agony and obscurity, others catch their big break. It's not a matter of talent, but of opportunity. Though, Llewyn has his opportunities. He just never quite cashes in on them. We're left wondering just how many Llewyn Davis's are out there.
More than that, are we one of them?
Note on content: The main reason this film was rated R is certainly its language. There is profanity throughout. There are some minor sexual references, but there is no nudity or overt sexual content. There is some violence - Llewyn gets beat up in an alleyway in the very first scene. One scene also centers around a character who has a seizure which clearly is the result of drug usage. There is also discussion about a friend of Llewyn's who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.