Review: The Coen Bros deliver a charming look at early ’60s folk music in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

The release of a new film by Joel and Ethan Coen is one of those moments that I like to savor each time it happens precisely because none of us have any idea how many more of them we’ll get. I feel like they have been on an amazing run recently, and if anything, they’re getting more daring, more controlled, more impressive. Their films have a thematic density that is dazzling, and they never seem to be struggling to make something “important,” instead simply following their own peculiar muse to consistently interesting effect.

Oscar Isaac stars as Llewyn Davis, a folk singer struggling at the fringe of the scene in Greenwich Village in 1961, and he’s facing a moment that any artist who does not find immediate success must face at some point, the question of whether or not to continue working in a field where you are frustrated. Llewyn survives thanks to a complicated economy based on free cigarettes, sleeping on couches, and showing up somewhere just in time to get invited to stay for dinner, and he seems like he’s on the verge of breaking through to real success. After all, he sees it happening to the people around him. His friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) are a real draw as a duo, and he feels like he’s very close to having a moment of his own if he can just play the right gig.

Even that description makes “Inside Llewyn Davis” sound more plot-oriented than it is. In truth, the film is more of a snapshot of the kind of charming train crash who can coast along on the good graces of others, and I’ve known so many of these guys over the years since moving to Los Angeles. He’s got real talent, and in those moments where Llewyn gets out of his own way and just gives himself over to performance, he is amazing. He’s just not any good at getting to those moments. The small details of every day life seem to overwhelm him. Something as basic as leaving someone’s apartment after staying on someone’s couch overnight becomes an exercise in frustration when he lets a cat escape. He is charming in small doses, but can quickly drive other people crazy. And when he does get close to people, he seems to destroy lives. Isaac plays the part with a sleepy charisma that is deceptive at first. The fact that he does come to life when he sings almost makes his flaws seem acceptable, and Isaac walks a fine line in the performance that speaks well of his overall ability to play leads in a film. Some guys hold a screen, and some guys don’t, and Isaac is the one we’re watching in every moment here.

The film takes place over a week, and it is technically dazzling. Bruno Delbonnel’s photography does a remarkable job of capturing both the warmth of the times and the chill of a city that doesn’t really want you, and it’s safe to say that T Bone Burnett’s work in putting together the soundtrack is as great as the work he did with the Coens for “O Brother Where Art Thou,” just as appropriate and specific and spot on accurate, just as essential in helping to create the world of the film. Some of the songs are funny, some are moving, and all of them sound like songs we already know by heart, like real relics of the era. That’s no easy feat.

The cast does great work, and longtime Coen spirit animal John Goodman shows up at one point as Roland Turner, a jazz musician who shares a long car-ride to Chicago with Llewyn. It’s a great example of what I love about their films and their approach to character. We don’t get any backstory about Turner. We don’t see him after a certain point. None of his scenes are particularly significant. But he suggests a full life, a fully-realized character, an equally rich narrative that just happens to intersect with Llewyn’s story for a few minutes. Carey Mulligan is good in her small role, and I think this might be the most I’ve ever liked Justin Timberlake in anything. Nothing in this is easily spelled out, and there are so many oblique references to things that either happened before this or that are happening outside the edge of the frames. I love so many small moments here, like Adam Driver’s performance during the recording of a song called “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” that I get the feeling I’ll be rewatching this the way I do with all of their movies, slowly but surely enjoying every wonderful little thing that they’ve packed into the film.

There is a line delivered by F. Murray Abraham at one point that I would imagine sums up every awful conversation the Coens have ever had with people who don’t understand what drives their work, and while Llewyn Davis may look into the unflinching, uncaring face of the music industry and flinch away from how brutal it is, the Coens continue to craft work that expresses a unique and moving world view, never letting the industry take from them the thing that made their voice so essential in the first place. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is another burnished gem from filmmakers who can only be described as “treasures” at this point, and one of 2013’s most unassuming pleasures.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in limited release on December 6, 2013, and then rolls out wider starting December 20, 2013.