Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest opus from the Coen Brothers, is the darling of critics. With good reason: This is a remarkably accomplished film.
Because of its keenly observed examination of the American folk music scene, circa 1961, Inside Llewyn Davis also serves as an important cultural document. The arrival of Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village that year changed the history of American popular music and this film captures the zeitgeist of the Village scene at that specific time and place.
But the Coens' film is less likely than some of its current rivals -- other sophisticated films such as Her, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street -- to make an impact with mainstream audiences. This is in part because of the esoteric subject matter that the Coens chose to explore. The telescoped time period, the moodiness of the piece, the lack of star power and the Coens' unwillingness to pander are other factors, even though they are strengths for the film. As we see with the fictional character of Llewyn Davis, greatness is not always rewarded.
One thing is not up for debate: Ethan and Joel Coen are extraordinary American filmmakers with a body of work that spans 29 years and often dazzles. Inside Llewyn Davis ranks with their finest films, including No Country for Old Men.
Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis, a wanna-be folk singer on the scene in 1961. The Guatemala-born Isaac (Prince John in the 2010 version of Robin Hood) embraces the role in a big bear hug, proving his acting skills are as exciting as his obvious abilities with guitar and vocals.
The character is said to be modelled on the life-and-time of the late Dave Van Ronk, an influential character in the folk scene although he never made it big like Dylan. But the real Van Ronk was more gracious and kind than the fictional character in the film. Llewyn Davis is a snarly drunk and unreliable even when sober. He has already impregnated the wife (Carey Mulligan) of a folksinger friend (Justin Timberlake) and alienated most of his other friends. One of the stunning, if subtle, things about the film is how Isaac and the Coens layer in such a powerful subtext and character development that we root for Llewyn Davis even when he is being monstrous. We also admire that he refuses to sell out. But the life of a starving artist is far from glamorous.
The storytelling is elliptical, with the end at the beginning, and at the end again when it has more meaning. The plot is bare-bones. The biggest event is Llewyn Davis' sudden trip from New York to Chicago and back again. But the cast of characters is sensational, especially John Goodman as the imperious back seat passenger on that car trip to Chicago.
Then we have the cat. A feline is the key to getting inside Llewyn Davis' messed-up head, inside his heartache, inside his will to create, inside his failure to act noble when it would really count. Our anti-hero is deeply flawed and the Coens' superb screenplay and firm direction takes us inside a fully realized man. Inside Llewyn Davis is a rich human experience.