Sean K. Cureton

The Odyssey of a Cat

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on December 29, 2013 at 1:02 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
4 out of 4 stars

Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from the Coen Brothers, explores some familiar territory while simultaneously expanding upon and enriching a cinematic worldview that has become so familiar to anyone acquainted with the Coens’ iconic body of work. Like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Llewyn is equal parts historical and mythological, documenting the emergence of rock and roll music from the Americana folk tradition, as sung by another nomadic wanderer reminiscent of the Homeric Odyssey. In Inside, Llewyn is a struggling folk singer in 1960’s Greenwich Village, scraping by on the skin of his teeth, taking the odd job here and there, all without the acclaim and success lauded onto some of his contemporaries for whom he feels a growing sense of self-loathing resentment. Like any other notable film from the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis is full to the brim with a certain nihilistic cynicism that threatens to boil over and spoil even its more redeeming characters and narrative devices. However, like the majority of the Coens’ body of work, the film never loses sight of its hero, and aims to save him from complete existential annihilation, even if such a rescue is sustained only through the underlying desire to survive and exist despite the overwhelming odds of life itself.

One of the many aspects of the Coens’ film that makes it as vibrant and heart-wrenchingly beautiful as it is comes with the Coens’ thoughtful and microscopically detailed rendering of New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1960’s. Where other films that have attempted to transport a narrative into the past, whether it be 50 or even just 10 years ago, often feel overtly fabricated and cringingly nostalgic, Inside Llewyn Davis’ Greenwich Village feels contemporary, as if you might be able to walk out of the very theatre in which you are viewing the film and end up on the very same streets that Llewyn woefully traverses on screen. From the cars on the street, down to the lonely little coffee shops and diners that Llewyn temporarily occupies to escape from the cold of the dead of winter, the Coens’ Greenwich Village feels antiquated, but not to an exaggerated extent. In establishing the film’s historied setting in such detail and authenticity, the Coens’ examination of the folk music scene of the era is allowed room to breathe and grow out from its established environment. Where a Wes Anderson type might have imbued 1960’s Manhattan with whimsy and a subdued saturation of color in the cinematic image, the Coens present the same setting as it would have looked at the time, and in effect what it still looks like in the ever tenuous now.

With such an expertly realized setting in place, the performances and music fall right into place, serving to populate the Coens’ Greenwich Village, making it a believably livable space. Oscar Isaac turns in a career defining performance, breathing a troubled and wounded humanity into that character of Llewyn Davis, caustic, hostile, sentimental, and redeemably sympathetic. Playing off of Isaac’s energy, the performances from such notable stars as Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, and F. Murray Abraham purr with the electricity and power of the film’s star. Even Garrett Hedlund, an otherwise unremarkable American actor, fits right in with his more experienced co-stars, lending the film a surprising layer of subtlety and nuance. On top of all that, T-Bone Burnett’s musical direction is sublime, crafting musical productions that feel utterly authentic and just plain nice to listen to, with the help of such notable singers and performers as Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, and Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford.

The Coen Brothers most recent film just might be the best film of the year, as it exemplifies a subtlety and maturity that has been earned and perfected over the course of the Coens’ near 30 years of filmmaking. Inside Llewyn Davis is remarkable, not for any departure from an established form, but for its consistency within a larger body of work that has come to be defined by an inherent genius. A genius, moreover, that has shown itself to be malleable, well suited to comedy, crime, drama, neo-noir, history, western, and musical film genres, without ever compromising its remarkably unique cinematic perspective. The Coens are two of the greatest auteurs in the relatively short history of film, and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of their best films to date. Harking after the tradition established in Homer’s epic poem, Inside Llewyn Davis is an Odyssey all its own, playfully lending the title of Ulysses to a wayward cat.                           

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