By William Wolf


One thing virtually certain about a film written and directed by the brothers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen is that it will be rich in atmosphere. This is especially and impressively true with their latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a highlight of the 2013 New York Film Festival., which plunges into the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early 1960s. Not only do they conjure up the physical ambience of the era, but the film strongly evokes the music of the period via its focus on the title character, given a brilliant performance by Oscar Isaac, who can sing as well as act. The soundtrack assumes major importance.

Those with memories of the period will be pleased with the authenticity, while younger viewers who have heard about the time will also be able to savor the scene and come away with their own impression of the era just before Bob Dylan arrived to up the ante. The film is inspired by the life of Dave Van Ronk, but it is a fictional tale that the brothers Coen concocted. For musical authenticity they have in their corner T. Bone Burnett, who curated and executive-produced the folk music.

Davis, the lead character, has talent, but is his own worst enemy. He is unreliable, self-destructive and bounces around bumming off friends and making enemies without caring about the effects on others. His relationships get increasingly messy and his life is a shambles. He is hurting from the fact that he lost his singing partner, but he desperately needs to pull himself together and have a sense of responsibility.

It is a strength of the film, and above all Isaac’s performance, that we can care about Llewyn even as we look askance at his behavior. He becomes a fascinating tragic character. Carey Mulligan is excellent as Jean, with whom he has had a destructive relationship. The film gains from other performances, including by John Goodman, Justin Timberlake and F. Murray Abraham.

Apart from Isaac’s memorable performance, the film reflects the amazing talent of the Coens to create a vibrant film no matter the subject that they choose. In this case, they create on the screen the sprawling music scene illuminated through the story threads, the hopes, the defeats and challenges to succeed and the difficulties aspiring artists have, with extra obstacles for someone who acts in ways that are off-putting even to those who would be inclined to help.

The result is the sort of movie that even if one isn’t particularly interested in the music scene under the microscope, one can still get drawn into it because of the story told and the acting. An intriguing experience has been created via a film that is consistently riveting. A CBS Films release. Reviewed December 6, 2013.


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