Starring – Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake and Garrett Hedlund
Duration: 104 minutes
Inside Llewyn Davis is the latest offering by the Coen Brothers and all the great praise you’ve heard about it is warranted. In brief, Inside is a film about Llewyn Davis, a folk singer. He used to be a part of a duo but now, he is trying to make it as a solo act. The film follows him for a few days, his interaction with friends, colleagues and random other people. There is also a cat called Ulysses that gets lost. This is not the most interesting synopsis and probably would not even have been an interesting film, if not for the way the Coen Brothers treated it. In their capable hands, it became a film that stays with you long after the end credits have finished rolling.
Llewyn is not doing well for himself and the same can be said for most of the people we meet through the course of the film. Most traditional Hollywood films about a similar subject would have been melodramatic and looked absolutely ugly. There would have been bouts of long monologues by the protagonist about how unfair life is and so on and all the actors would have been made to look ugly. The Coen Brothers did none of that. Inside is a beautiful film. They don’t give the audience visual cues to get an emotional reaction. It looks almost as if the camera just happened to be following Llewyn and captured what it did. It did not look contrived. There were moments in the film that were very touching but that reaction was organic. It wasn’t just that one scene; it was a culmination of the numerous scenes before it that set the stage for this one.
A few funny moments aside, there is a sense of melancholy and sadness that pervades Inside. There’s a heaviness to the film that stays throughout. You see Llewyn’s repeated attempts to get ahead and failing. He is a defeated man; his struggles are that of man on his deathbed, making one last attempt to defy death. His predicament is even more touching because of his acceptance of his defeats/failures. If anything, the film says that talent alone is not good enough because Llewyn is very talented. He is an amazing singer and has the ability to infuse the songs he sings with heartbreak and yet, he is turned down repeatedly. It comes down to whether or not you can be marketed. He is deemed not exciting enough to be a solo performer. One of the best examples of this when he goes to Chicago as a last ditch effort to land a gig and performs for the owner of the establishment. Llewyn has given up.
The Coen Brothers hit a jackpot when they cast Oscar Isaac who is absolutely sublime as Llewyn. More often than not, Isaac does not even need dialogues to convey what he is feeling; it is in his voice, his posture, there is a quiet pain in his eyes. Isaac carries the film but he is joined by a number of gifted co-stars who are very good in the small parts they play. Notable among them is Carey Mulligan. She plays Jean, his friend’s wife and someone he is in love with. She is cold and shares a love-hate relationship with Llewyn. Her strong performance here is a refreshing change, especially after her Razzie-worthy performance in The Great Gatsby.
Inside is also a beautiful film to look at. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is instrumental to setting the emotional tone. The shots are beautifully composed and clean. There is no clutter to distract the audience from what the characters are going through. It was also a pleasure to see shots that were shot with a camera mounted on a tripod. In a world where hand-held technique is used regardless of whether or not it is required, seeing shots that are steady are a welcome relief to the senses. The colour tone is desaturated, much like Delbonnel’s 2011 film, Faust (directed by Aleksandr Sukorov) The colours are muted with lots of dull browns and greys and an overall blue tint. Like Faust, Inside also looks hazy almost like it has been shot through a thick fog, The film’s visual tone not only reflects the cold that Llewyn feels but also the cold and desolate landscape that is his life. The editing was also noteworthy because there were no two-second shots. The editing gave the scenes the time and space to breathe and develop an atmosphere that was organic. It made it very easy for the viewer to get lost in the film. It is refreshing to come across films that don’t look hurried and have an easy-going pace. The quick cuts would not have worked for a film like this because it would break the emotional flow of a scene.
The music is also a beautiful aspect of the film. With the exception of one song, all the others are covers by the cast. What is also important to note is that they sang live on set. This added an air of authenticity to the film. The performances also often take place in a dark, quiet room of with a very small number of people in the audience which made it very intimate, almost as if the film’s viewer was sitting right there with the audience on-screen. It would be an understatement to say that Isaac was a competent singer because he has a beautiful singing voice that was a pleasure to listen to.
Masterful direction and a very well written script by the Coen brothers are what make this film standout and memorable. They offer no resolution, not for the characters and not for the film either. While this might put some people off the film but a film need not have a resolution, for example, Kiarostami’s last film, Like Someone in Love, also ended without any kind of a resolution. The characters here are real people; there are shades of grey in all of them. There are no heroes and villains here, we are all victims of circumstances of our own creation and this is perhaps most true for Llewyn.
Inside Llewyn Davis is an amazing film and one film I would certainly love to watch again. It is brilliantly directed, well written, beautifully shot and very well acted. While it is magnificent film, it is not for everyone because of its slow pace. But if one is willing to be patient, it is a very satisfying experience and a pleasure to watch.