The Coens have returned with a new entry in their grand canon of masterpieces, just in time for the 30th anniversary of their first. Inside Llewyn Davis is playing at the Darkside Cinema, and it’s another wonderful opportunity to see the masters at work.
Let’s be brief with the obvious platitudes about the Coen brothers’ greatness and their oft-displayed genius; they’re quite indisputably America’s finest filmmakers and are trendsetters in a way no other writer or director has been. Since their first film, the game changing independent classic Blood Simple (1984) they have frequently reinvented themselves, as well as more than one entire genre, started multiple film and musical crazes, launched the careers of a thousand poseurs and blazed such an iconic, recognizable style that their names cast a larger shadow over their own work than probably any other filmmaker in the world.
Except maybe Michael Bay.
When you go into a Coen brothers joint, you may have no idea what you’re getting, but you’re relatively sure when you see it that it’s got their names written all over it. Even their remakes, The Ladykillers (2004) and True Grit (2010), are loaded with their unique style.
Their new film, a melancholy and atmospheric period comedy-drama about the titular Llewyn Davis, a middling folk singer navigating the early 60’s folk scene in New York City, is much lighter on their touches, but is no less a child of the Coen brothers’ layered influences. They’re Jewish cowboy hippy-folk intellectuals from the Midwest.
Inside is funny, kind of dark, meandering, surreal, and authentic in a way that most films can’t even approach; the music, as they obnoxiously say, “transports you” to 1961 in the Village. It carries the film like the music in the Coen classic O Brother Where Art Thou, the soundtrack of which launched a national craze for bluegrass music in the early 2000s. Inside Llewyn Davis is unlikely to do the same for classic 60’s folk, but it is eerily, tragically, coincidental for them that Pete Seeger should pass away at 94 just as their film is in theaters across the country. I don’t expect a full on revival, but at least a Starbucks exclusive CD produced by T-Bone Burnett, featuring Elvis Costello and Iggy Pop covering “classics of the Ozarks.”
Oscar Isaac, who burst into most people’s notice with his small but pivotal role in Drive (2009), a movie I don’t pass on any opportunity to praise, is Llewyn Davis. He’s a bitter miscreant who makes beautiful poetry when he plays, but leaves a bitter trail of disappointment and disillusionment when he lives. Isaac actually plays and sings the numbers in the film, unlike Clooney in O Brother, and they’re beautiful songs that chart the emotional journey Davis is on.
There are some uneven spots in the cast, most notably the not-terrible, but not great, Justin Timberlake in a small role. Carey Mulligan, the interminably melancholy beauty who stole our hearts in Drive before putting us all to sleep in the execrable The Great Gatsby earlier this year, is fabulous as the cranky but loving Jean, Llewyn’s artistic matron-cum-paramour. She should stick to better screenplays and movies co-starring Oscar Isaac.
“If it’s not new, and it never gets old, it’s a folk song,” Llewyn jokes on stage. The same can almost be said of the masterful brothers; if it’s entirely familiar, but completely unrecognizable, it’s a Coen brothers’ film.