Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

My experience watching the Coen Brothers’ musical Inside Llewyn Davis ranged from sheer magic to frustrating bleakness and back again. Its circular nature makes me curious to revisit, though my initial viewing left me less floored than I had been about halfway through.

The first half, the film’s strongest act, is a masterful recreation of the folk scene of 1960s New York. Beautifully shot imagery, of muted colors and deep shadows, paired with very strong music, evoke a time and place many of us will only dream of. Of course the reality of the situation, particularly that of struggling guitarist Llewyn Davis, is anything but a dream, as he crashes couch to couch, heckles other folk performers, and gets girls into jams.

Not that Inside Llewyn Davis is some romanticized take on this era; the East Side was undoubtedly full of Llewyn Davises, doing their rounds in artistic circles for a shot at a hit and finally striking it big. But seeing Llewyn in his element, facing the struggles that surely rings true for others in that time, is where this film really hits its stride.

Where it falls off is through a very long detour to Chicago and back; while plot elements are revealed, Llewyn doesn’t seem to evolve much from this experience, making the 20-30 minute stretch of the movie seem less than necessary. Particularly as he returns to New York, finding himself back in the same situations as where he started, his character arc isn’t quite as satisfying as perhaps intended.

I could be completely off – the point may be that Llewyn is so numb to the rejection and failure, he’s past the point of epiphany and growth, and the narrative succeeds in this plateau of maturity. From my perspective however, the film did not seem to go much of anywhere.

Not that it really needed to, either; the setting and exposition were constructed beautifully. I liked the vision of 1960s New York and wanted to see that better established. From the initial glimpses into the folk subculture, I began to expect an alternate version of Robert Altman’s Nashville but about another time and place in American music (which would be terrific – I’d want to see that movie).

It also must be said that Oscar Isaac’s performance as the titular Llewyn Davis is remarkable. I hadn’t seen him in anything playing more than a small supporting role, so to set him center stage, and have him sing, showcases his abilities wonderfully. From this movie alone, he is absolutely a talent to keep an eye out for.

There’s a lot to like about Inside Llewyn Davis; despite its murky middle, the story is bookended by a strong, fully believable view of 1960s New York, supported by a solid, starmaking performance by Mr. Isaac.

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