Over the course of 18 films in 30 years, writer-director duo Joel and Ethan Coen – aka The Coen Brothers – have introduced viewers to an endless array of inventive characters, from The Dude in “The Big Lebowski” and Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” to Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men” and H.I. and Edwina McDunnough in “Raising Arizona.” But in their latest film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” they’ve created perhaps their most realistic character study yet in depicting a struggling folk singer in the heart of the folk explosion in 1960s New York City – and while the film is impressively made, it’s more solemn than entertaining.
The film opens in almost documentary fashion, as Davis (brilliantly portrayed by Oscar Isaac) performs a full song in a smoky club. The effect is mesmerizing, as the Coens and their ace cinematographer Roger Deakins settle into the groove amid the gritty details of the audience and their surroundings and literally make viewers feel like they are in the room, transported across the decades into Greenwich Village.
As soon as he’s done with his tune, Davis is told to step outside in an alley because someone’s there to see him. He’s instantly punched and kicked by a mysterious tall redneck who dashes off in a car after warning him not to mock the other performers, and we’re immediately aware that while Davis is talented, he’s also a self-absorbed jerk.
That defining personality trait is the focus of much of the movie, as Davis bounces from one couch to another across the city while subtly manipulating people for a dinner, a drink or an easy one night stand. But as he learns that he’s gotten the live-in girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) of a fellow singer friend (Justin Timberlake) pregnant, that he’s lost the cat of his biggest benefactor and that his gigs and money are drying up ever since his former singing partner committed suicide, Davis finds himself grasping at straws and taking a random road trip that brings him into contact with a string of strangers, including a mysterious man who seems on the verge of comically dying at any moment (John Goodman, in another scene-stealing turn).
Currently in release in Los Angeles and New York City before opening nationwide December 20, “Davis” is somewhat troubling viewing for discerning Catholics due to a subplot in which Davis agrees to set up a then-illegal abortion for the woman he’s impregnated. The idea of aborting the baby comes up immediately and without question from either Davis or the woman, who adds to the anti-life attitude by ranting with dark sarcasm about how she would have the baby if she could be sure it was her live-in boyfriend’s rather than his.
On the other hand, while on his road trip, Davis is shown briefly looking with haunted regret at a road sign for Akron, Ohio, where a past girlfriend returned home while pregnant with another child of his. Isaac and the Coens nail the moment perfectly, providing some sense of the sadness that comes from a life of empty promiscuity.
There’s also a profusion of profanity that comes in bursts during fights both serious and humorous, with about 50 F words scattered throughout.
therwise, no actual sex is seen and the violence is limited to the couple of brutal punches and kicks Davis receives from the mystery man in the alley.
I won’t give away much more of what happens, because building a coherent string of events that add up to a dramatic payoff isn’t the point in this film. It’s more a collection of events, occasionally funny but mostly sad, that add up to a rich depiction of a long-gone era when musicians actually played real instruments and wrote and sang songs that had intellectual depth.
Rather, much like music itself, “Davis” grabs you emotionally. While it’s centered around a guy who seems like a real jerk much of the time, it also manages to make him sympathetic at the moments where his dreams are most in danger of being crushed. It is there – in the depiction of the indomitable artistic spirit, the irrational yet inexorable drive within all artists to succeed even in the face of constant failure – that the movie finds its quiet power.
Packed with affecting music, strong acting, stunning cinematography and a unique sense of place, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of the most intriguing movies of the year. But the film as a whole is just like its title character: easy to admire for its rich display of talent, but hard to love.