Telluride: Nothing touches Oscar Isaac in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ … nothing

TELLURIDE, Colo. – The truth is I don’t quite know how I feel about the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” yet. A number of people have asked me, “How can you not know how you feel?” This is, after all, a film embraced almost unanimously at Cannes and now here in Telluride.

I don’t quite know how to put it, so I want to wait and see how it resonates. At first blush it feels somewhat minor, but I want to think more about what’s going on thematically. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the Coens are independently making a film about a folk musician struggling against the constraints of commercial music after coming off their biggest box office hit to date, for instance. For now, though, I’ll just concentrate on what sticks out as immediately worthy of praise: Oscar Isaac’s absolutely pitch-perfect performance as the eponymous Davis.

Isaac is an actor we’ve seen deliver in a character capacity for a little while now, whether it’s in something like “Robin Hood,” “W.E.” or “Drive.” That work ethic pays off in spades here as, combined with the fact that he’ll be largely an unknown to commercial audiences when the film is finally released, he slips under the skin of this character and cooks up a genuine person. I wasn’t watching Oscar Isaac on that screen. I was watching Llewyn Davis.

I don’t think I can hammer that home enough here. I was completely taken with his portrayal, quirky but not the least bit — not the LEAST bit — mannered or contrived. The authenticity was like a vintage whiff off an old vinyl. And that’s before we even get to the performance element.

Isaac’s work behind the mic is something to behold, truly. He has a wonderful voice but more than that, he delivers something that’s really un-teachable with his vocals: truth and experience. His words dance out like the testimony of someone who has lived the stories he sings, and that is a special quality indeed.

“If I came down right here and said, ‘Hey, I want you to hear this song,’ and if I played it with a lot of love and said, ‘Here’s a song I want to give all of you right now,’ that’s what Oscar was able to do,” T Bone Burnett said at this morning’s tribute to both him and the Coens. “He was able to get into that real moment of a singer’s absolute generosity, giving everything he had. That’s an extraordinary feat.”

So count that as my take on “Inside Llewyn Davis” for the moment: absolute captivation by Oscar Isaac, who has given, to my mind, the single best performance I’ve seen on a screen so far this year. I’ll sit with the movie itself a bit longer and perhaps take it in again either here at the festival or in a few weeks in LA, but it’s full of all the tasteful craft you’d expect of the Coens. I just want it to marinate a little longer.

As for the festival itself, there will be plenty more to come. I still haven’t written up Penn and Teller’s “Tim’s Vermeer,” potentially the best new film I’ve seen here so far. But will that change in mere hours after “Gravity” wraps up? I’ll let you know.