The 400-Word Review: Inside Llewyn Davis
By Sean Collier
December 23, 2013
At this point in their careers, the Coen Brothers can’t help but make one of the best films of a given year.
Such was the case with True Grit. Same for A Serious Man. Some didn’t like Burn After Reading, but I’d say it’s an underrated and hilarious film. And No Country for Old Men was one of the best films of the last decade.
So without misstepping wildly, the only question was whether Inside Llewyn Davis would be among the finest pieces of cinema we’ve seen in 2013, or the finest overall. It’s not quite at the top of the list in a great year, but that’s about the only criticism available.
The title character, brought to contradictory and beautiful life by Oscar Isaac, is a self-destructive folk singer navigating the promise and absurdity of the 1960s folk revival in Greenwich Village. In the film’s opening scene, he achingly tiptoes his way through the standard “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a serious and heartbreaking song by any measure.
Around Davis, though, promoters are trying to make money off of gimmicks, his fellow songwriters are penning wannabe novelty hits and anyone possessing an unpopular instrument is stopping by New York’s hippest clubs for a set. He’s bewildered by the characters around him, but isn’t cocky or self-assured; on the contrary, he always seems a step away from hanging up his guitar, particularly since his only profitable effort was a collaboration with a partner who (before the action of the film) hurled himself from a bridge.
Make no mistake, though; Inside Llewyn Davis is a comedy, albeit a sad one. Any film populated with characters as absurd as this will find its way to humor without effort, particularly in juxtaposition with the unironic, self-serious trappings of the ’60s folk movement. The supporting cast, naturally, is filled with people who can’t help but be funny: Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Adam Driver and especially Justin Timberlake craft characters that will instantly enter the Coen canon. (A scene where Timberlake, as a starry-eyed crooner, recruits Davis to help record a bit of anti-space exploration bubblegum called “Please Mr. Kennedy” might be the film’s high water mark.)
Davis’ nomadic lifestyle and the Coens’ resistance to a clean structure make for a few wandering moments, but they’re forgivable. It’ll likely be a bridesmaid when statues are handed out, but Inside Llewyn Davis is a remarkable film.
My Rating: 9/10
Overall Rating on CriticsChoice.com: 82/100 (Seal of Approval Recipient)
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark