While similar in structure to many of the Coen Brothers’ previous films, “Inside Llewyn Davis” takes its time embracing the signature style of the renowned filmmakers. It’s not until almost halfway through that the odd occurrences and even stranger characters begin to surface. Chain-smoking valet poets, a pompous John Goodman channeling corpulent Orson Welles, and mischievous orange cats begin to occupy the titular protagonist’s intermittently existential odyssey of self-discovery after a meaty portion of slice-of-life drama and an ample array of unabridged songs.
Though the staples are belated in comparison to much of the Coen’s canon, their tardiness creates greater contrast and allows the impressive performance from Oscar Isaac to seep in. Here is a character far more accessible and attentively examined than any the visionary duo has offered in years. Thought provoking and somber, “Inside Llewyn Davis” bears the unmistakable mark of its creators, but also provides palatable emotion that eclipses the Coen’s usual, heavily philosophical and experimental work.
Struggling to be heard in the 1960’s folk music scene, musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) performs in the Gaslight Café to make ends meet while attempting to promote his new album to prominent producers. Waning interest in solo acts and an unenthusiastic agent sheds little assurance for his professional career while his personal life doesn’t fare much better. A bitter ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) demands monetary assistance for past transgressions and a lack of income finds the songwriter traveling from couch to couch across Greenwich Village. Determined to confront record executive Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), Llewyn begins a turbulent journey to Chicago, imbued with hope, despair, and mysterious crackpot travelers.
“Do you ever think about the future at all?” queries Mulligan’s Jean. Coen Brothers’ movies make the audience think. There’s nothing straightforward about “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona,” “Barton Fink,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” or “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” And this new film’s lack of a decisive, conclusive, categorical story arc is just one of the ways they demand greater audience participation, forcing viewers to decipher meanings behind every action. Parallels to “The Incredible Journey” become more apparent when poster art is visible on camera, but the clearly circular pattern to Davis’ functioning, as well as his pursuit, a rescue, and an accidental destruction of a cat, along with the final return of the neighbor’s feline, symbolize the epic wandering from a starting point, through a twisting odyssey, and ultimately back to the very same origin. Time is also obscured to the point of nontraditional locomotion; while depicting a mere week, the lengthier dwelling on misadventures and disconcerting interactions disorients the characters on screen, who similarly seem confused about the amount of passing days.
It takes a bit of time to develop into a full-fledged Coen-esque picture, but by the cut-to-black finale, it’s entirely fitting amongst their body of existentialism-oriented works. Folk songs are played out in their entirety, not only as live performances, but also to narrate overlapping sequences, immediately questioning the consequence of the music to the plot as it assumes the notion of watching a record. Fortunately, as the intricacies of the hardships of show business consume a depressing yet persevering main character, the songs don’t overtake the appeal of the acting, the humor, or the detail-oriented observations of the early ’60s folk scene. It may be tamer, not quite as saturated with oddball personalities (though Goodman steals the show as a particularly crass cynic), and slower to come into the purposeful suggestions of participation and presence, but Oscar Isaac is utterly absorbing, defining a consistently disheartened, browbeaten persona that can’t help but to inspirationally get back up.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)