4.5 / 5
Springtime will probably never arrive for Llewyn Davis, because he doesn't want it to. He's trapped in a bleak cycle of endless struggle, which is mostly of his own making.
Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village. His timing is off. Bob Dylan hasn't appeared on the scene yet (though he's seen for the briefest of moments in the movie), and folk songs are the staple of beatnik coffee houses. It seems like everyone wants to be an artist, except people like Llewyn's sister, who has become a hopelessly "square" suburbanite -- or, worse, his father, who has given up completely.
Joel and Ethan Coen's exploration of Llewyn's pointless career makes one thing quite clear: Llewyn Davis has talent, a lot of it. What he doesn't have is ambition. He aimlessly floats from sofa to sofa, until finally even his sister won't take him in anymore. He's also got a box of unsold records, the only album he cut when he was part of a duo. He doesn't want to be part of a duo anymore, with good reason.
Llewyn is painfully self-conscious about what he doesn't have, but what makes his character and his story so compelling is that he is completely oblivious to what he does have: a group of friends who care deeply about him, people who will literally give them the shirt (or, at least, jacket) off their backs, and genuine opportunity.
"You're like King Midas' idiot brother," his friend and occasional lover Jean (Carey Mulligan) tells him. She ought to know -- she's been on the receiving end of Llewyn's self-made bad luck, and the consequences could rub off on her relationship with clean-cut Jim (Justin Timberlake), who gives Llewyn the chance of a lifetime by inviting Llewyn to record a novelty song about astronaut John Glenn. Llewyn doesn't think twice about the mistake he makes after the recording session, and it's a whopper.
It's also exactly the kind of move that seems to come second nature to him.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a bleak movie, but not an unhappy one -- it achieves a miracle of tone under the sure-handed direction of the Coen brothers, bearing almost no trace of the manic, surreal qualities that make many of their movies so off-putting to some (me included). Here, they're thoughtful and quiet, though the movie is not without enormous humor.
It's a perfectly realized film, layered with literary references, visual symbolism and quietly dazzling cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel that renders Llewyn's entire world in a washed-out dullness that's simultaneously hopeless and beautiful as it sends Llewyn on a journey that leaves him physically and mentally exhausted.
Isaac, who sings beautifully, conveys Llewyn's desperate exasperation with enormous affection -- Llewyn doesn't want to end up like this, he just doesn't know what he could do differently, and he endears himself to the audience as much as he does to the friends who don't know if they can take him in yet again, but invariably do.
It's a beautiful, haunting (and funny) movie all the way, but then offers up one more surprise: a final sequence that is both a bit of a shock and an inevitability. For fans of the Coen Brothers who might be otherwise perplexed by the deliberate introspection of the movie (which shares a few similarities to their A Simple Man), the last few shots are a sly delight -- but they don't exist just to throw the audience for a loop.
After you leave the theater, you'll think about how Inside Llewyn Davis ends and how it begins depends. A lot of your view on the ending will depend on how you come to view Llewyn himself, a victim of fate or of his own stubbornness -- or maybe a little of both. Either way, the Coens have crafted a movie to leave you wondering if those cryptic final moments should force you to rethink everything you just saw, and maybe Llewyn himself.
Viewed Dec. 27, 2013 -- Arclight Sherman Oaks