“Inside Llewyn Davis is, like a number of Joel and Ethan Coen’s films, a winter’s tale, brushed with granite grays, oaky browns, and pale whites,” begins Chris Cabin in Slant. “It’s a fitting pallor for the 1960s folk scene in Greenwich Village that the eponymous troubadour, played by Oscar Isaac, finds himself rambling through. And ramble on Llewyn does, between venues, open couches, and women, stopping most consistently at the home and, occasionally, in the bed of Carey Mulligan’s Jean, an angry, regretful singer who refers to her erstwhile lover as ‘King Midas’s idiot brother.'”
Glenn Kenny, too, finds that “Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie in which atmosphere does almost all of the important work…. The Coens’ vision of the burgeoning folk scene in Manhattan of 1961 hasn’t got a single hint of A Mighty Wind and not all that much of the redolence of the Coens’ own O Brother Where Art Thou. Even when the title protagonist is depicted being roped into joining a trio cutting a folk-novelty stinker under the aegis of a Columbia record exec (Ian Jarvis) who’s pretty plainly styled after John Hammond, the movie studiously avoids pastiche. The authenticity-in-art bugaboo was particularly pronounced, of course, during the real period depicted here, but the Coens never address it head on, and it’s to the movie’s credit that it contains no heated debates about ‘real’ folk music. Instead, it depicts Llewyn, still too young to have earned the ‘journeyman’ tag, scrupulously if not stubbornly hoeing his own row, which happens to be an old-school one, and learning in increments that he’s never going to get anywhere by doing so…. And for all that, and despite the ever-so-slightly on-the-nose evocation of a world historical cultural phenomenon at the movie’s end, Inside Llewyn Davis is an entirely exhilarating experience.”
Again, the atmosphere: “Gray dominates cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s palette,” writes Graham Fuller at Artinfo. “The movie’s psychic space is not made up of the folkie landmarks, homes, or workplaces, but the dingy concrete patches and alleys adjoining them. Behind the Gaslight, Llewyn (primarily inspired by Dave Van Ronk) twice takes a beating: the mysterious dude who inflicts it embodies the return of the repressed, the ghost of the friend, perhaps, whose disappearance traumatized Llewyn and triggered his depression. This space, the New York all New Yorkers know but seldom speak or bother about, comprises the non-zones and liminal spots where nothing useful or good can happen, and where plenty of bad things do, but which, in Inside Llewyn Davis, have a less-than-noir significance.”
Llewyn “couch-surfs his way around New York, hitches rides to Chicago and back, and visits, you suspect, just about everyone he loves or needs something from,” writes Elise Nakhnikian at the House Next Door. Among these characters are “his sister (Jeanine Serralles), whose patience is fraying fast; his impossible-to-please father (Stan Carp), who’s wasting away in a nursing home; his deceptively abusive, apparently avuncular agent, Mel (Jerry Grayson); and the kind, middle-aged couple (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) whose comfortably bohemian-ish apartment is the closest thing Llewyn has to a home base…. Like so many other genuinely talented people who just never get lucky, he winds up like the movie, back where he began.”
“The T Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack certainly reinforces the notion that Llewyn’s failure has more to do with the absence of meritocracy than want of talent,” finds Martin Tsai at the Critic’s Notebook. “The Coens have always had this nagging tendency to be condescending toward their characters; but they’ve dialed it down quite a bit on Llewyn, to the point that he seems sympathetic by comparison to the obligatory oddballs (John Goodman et al) that populate the cast. Still, after enjoying nearly three decades of enormous critical and commercial goodwill, the Coens come off as completely disingenuous when they explicate the struggles of an artist largely by blaming the system.”
But Time Out New York‘s David Fear finds the film to be “a gentle ode about being one step behind a major cultural curve. While you’ll get plenty of the brothers’ deadpan humor, loopy dialogue and rep-company grotesques—John Goodman’s Burroughs-meets-Richard III hipster gets the MVP award—this isn’t one of their hermetic, formalist exercises in misanthropy. There’s an offbeat sense of humanity present in this Job of MacDougal Street.”
“One to brood on!” exclaims New York‘s David Edelstein. In the latest Cinephiliacs podcast, Peter Labuza and Monica Castillo discuss Inside Llewyn Davis, which screens today and Friday at the New York Film Festival. Earlier: Reviews from Cannes. And Anne Thompson interviews Oscar Isaac (13’32”).
Update, 10/16: “Scene for scene,” writes Michael Koresky at Reverse Shot, “Inside Llewyn Davis makes its main character’s every gesture and quirk a tiny revelation—there’s a lovely throwaway moment in which he strums chords on his guitar along to Bach’s Matthäus Passion spinning on the turntable. And along with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, the directors find elegant, inventive ways to visualize his situation, authentically capturing what makes city dwelling at once so inviting and forbidding. Rarely have the hairbreadth hallways and terrazzo floors of New York apartments looked so surreal on film. Llewyn belongs in these spaces and yet doesn’t; even in the neighborhood’s smoky basements and casual coffeehouses, like that still-standing relic Café Reggio, Llewyn is a square peg, a reminder that history’s legendary refuges for oddballs could not be sufficient asylum for all.”
Update, 12/1: “The Coens take pleasure in enacting various tortures on their schlubby, gormless anti-heroes,” grants Calum Marsh at Hazlitt, “and that, in the favored critical parlance, makes their films hateful and condescending and, harshest (and trendiest) of all, misanthropic. This assessment, though, seems to have two main problems: the first is that I doubt whether the Coens really do hate their characters after all, as many of them, though they suffer, are redeemed in our eyes as earnest or well-intentioned or otherwise endearingly flawed…. The second problem is more foundational. I don’t know, for sure, that a degree of mockery, or even punishment, is something to be avoided on principle.”
Updates, 12/5: Inside Llewyn Davis has won best feature at the Gotham Awards.
For Michael Sicinski, writing in the Nashville Scene, “the power of the Coens’ film is in its gradual revelation of the greater field of operations surrounding Llewyn. Those who judge him are, to a large extent, just as heinous as he is; they are just more comfortable with their own lies.”
The NYT‘s A.O. Scott notes that “this is not a biopic, it’s a Coen brothers movie, which is to say a brilliant magpie’s nest of surrealism, period detail and pop-culture scholarship. To put it another way, it’s a folk tale.”
“Every once in a while some kind of meaning or pattern emerges for just a brief shimmering second and then disappears from view, like the cats that keep slipping away from our lonely, dour protagonist. But if this beautiful film seems unnaturally elusive, there’s a good reason for that: The real story is happening somewhere else.” Bilge Ebiri explains.
New York‘s David Edelstein notes that “with Isaac front and center, the movie is never monotonous. With his thick, unruly black hair and scruffy beard, he evokes Lenny Bruce and Al Pacino circa Serpico—countercultural touchstones. He makes Llewyn an asshole of stature, chafing at his fate but always—unlike many of the Coens’ tunnel-visioned protagonists—getting the (sick cosmic) joke.”
“If the whole film is an odyssey (and the allusion is made explicit at one point), then this is a trip to the underworld,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker.
At the Dissolve, Keith Phipps notes that “if Llewyn has a cousin in the Coen filmography, it’s Barton Fink, another young talent forced to look at the machinery of how art gets processed and sold. But where Barton Fink sometimes resembled a horror movie, Inside Llewyn Davis plays like an elegy.”
Nicolas Rapold at the L: “When DA Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back chronicled Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour in England, the immediacy and the pretenses of both cinema verité and Dylan made for a special alchemy, feeding off the anxieties of a moment, a person, a style of filmmaking. Perhaps, building on A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers have, in resurrecting a world of folk and its jockeying over authenticity, keyed into a level of expression and empathy all the more potent after the long-form pratfalls they’ve orchestrated in the past.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis is the warmest picture they’ve ever made,” writes the Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek, “and though it will never attract the cultlike adoration of The Big Lebowski and Fargo, or earn the serious-lit-adaptation accolades of No Country for Old Men, it’s possibly their best.”
Five out of five stars from Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York.
At Slate, David Haglund presents a guide to the real-life figures who inspired several of the film’s characters.
“The CD, which was released three weeks ago, is a trove of sonic pleasure,” adds Time‘s Richard Corliss. “A single listen should certify the suspicion that Inside Llewyn Davis is more deserving of a Grammy than an Oscar. It’s a middling portrait but a great album.”
Interviews with the Coens: Todd Gilchrist (Movies.com) and Andrew O’Hehir (Salon). And with Carey Mulligan: Charlie Schmidlin (Playlist) and Marlow Stern (Daily Beast). And Amy Nicholson talks with Oscar Isaac for the LA Weekly.
Updates, 12/6: “I might as well just admit it, I feel an abiding/irritating kinship with the cranky folk singer,” writes Glenn Kenny, declaring Inside Llewyn Davis his favorite film of 2013. He’s also given it four out of four stars at RogerEbert.com. “It’s awesome. My friend Michelle Dean has a nice piece at Flavorwire taking issue with the movie’s naysayers and putting her finger on some of the reasons it resonates so naggingly with folks like herself and myself.”
Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir adds that, “for my money, the 33-year-old Isaac—who was born in Guatemala, raised in Florida, and has been working his way toward stardom for years—gives the year’s breakout performance, and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coens’ richest, strangest and most potent films. They are justifiably known for their dialogue, their pacing, their plotting and their wit, and that’s all here. But Inside Llewyn Davis, even with its meticulous portrayal of early-1960s Greenwich Village, pushes beyond realism and satire into more mysterious terrain, into the surrealism or metaphysics or even spirituality (I feel the Coens wincing) that has surfaced sporadically in their work and always thrums beneath the surface.”
“There are many ways to characterize and/or position the movie, and here’s one that seems to me to be unavoidable: as a failure of simple storytelling progression, and a supremacy of Worst Case Scenario plotting over anything more complex.” Michael Atkinson explains.
Also at Sundance Now, Nick Pinkerton: “For every Bob Dylan, how many dozens of Llewyn Davis’s were there, with albums languishing unsold on the shelves? For every Coen Brothers, how many has-beens and would-bes never got up the same ‘festival buzz’? ‘You’ve probably heard that one before,’ Davis says shortly before he cedes the stage to Dylan, ‘Because it was never new and it never gets old and it’s a folk song.’ This bit of boilerplate banter gets at something essential to Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie that’s as timeless as feeling low.”
“An undeniably talented two-man band of brothers, the Coens take pleasure less in confronting their audience or authority in general, than in bullying the characters they invent for their own amusement,” argues J. Hoberman in Tablet. “Theirs is a comic theater of cruelty populated by a battered cast of action figures and a worldview that might have been formulated not from a Buick 6, à la Dylan but the Olympian heights of a bunk bed in suburbia.”
“The entire film seems to hold its breath for Isaac’s pure, clear, plaintive voice,” writes Tom Shone for the Guardian. “The Coens could easily have taken this in the other direction, and rendered Llewyn talentless—the trailers play impishly with this possibility—but instead they tack towards a more Withnailish paradox: if only the universe could stop oppressing Llewyn and listen, then it would hear how beautiful its oppression is making him.”
“For all its grim pessimism, Inside Llewyn Davis is almost romantic in its way,” finds Slate‘s Dana Stevens.
“Inside Llewyn Davis feels to me like a picture in which the brothers never got in such a hole they had to find a way of believing in their own material,” writes David Thomson in the New Republic. “It has a shrugging, routine moodiness.”
Tim Lammers talks with Isaac for Esquire.
Updates, 12/7: “More than any other American movie this year, Inside Llewyn Davis gets at the innate sadness and crusty humor that runs through American culture,” writes Robert Koehler for arts•meme.
Writing for Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson offers “a slight warning for those eager to run out to their local indie haus after work tonight: The movie’s a total downer.”
Updates, 12/20: “Llewyn Davis is a creature of the here and now, not of 1961,” argues Luc Sante, writing for the New York Review of Books. “He has none of the communitarian goodwill, the erudite passion, or the optimistic idealism that marked the period. He is a confused, irascible striver who isn’t sure what he is striving for, apparently seeking a career when folk music was about the last place you’d look for one…. The implacable dictates of a society in which the value of everything is determined solely by its sale price will sooner or later shuttle him into some low-level desk job. He’ll take his guitar out on weekends for a while, but then the regret will become too strong and he’ll bury it in the back of his closet. And when he sees this movie, he’ll feel a pang—and then he’ll laugh about the vanity of youth.”
“After watching it twice,” writes Sam Adams at Criticwire, I’ve come to the conclusion [that Llewyn Davis] is a near-perfect movie to which I have virtually no emotional response…. I don’t think it’s about what many of its admirers think it’s about.” Spoilers and an explanation follow.
Carey Mulligan’s character “deserves a fuller arc than she gets,” writes Jonathan Kiefer in the SF Weekly, “and some scenes’ intentions seem fuzzy, but the filmmakers get away with that because it’s all done with such extraordinary, experience-abetted confidence—and sincerity, which is nice, and a relief, to see from them.”
“Even the tiniest parts are gems,” writes Robert Horton in the Herald, “but Justin Timberlake (as a clean-cut folkie who understands how the game is played) and F. Murray Abraham (as a placid agent) are among the standouts.”
Writing for the Atlantic, Noah Gittell argues that “the film leaves out one defining element of that real-life setting: politics.”
Nathan Rabin, Tasha Robinson, and Scott Tobias have been discussing the film at the Dissolve. Josef Braun has a few words on the soundtrack. For the Nashville Scene, Jason Shawhan talks with the Coens, Oscar Isaac, and John Goodman. Ray Pride interviews Isaac for Newcity Film and John McDermott talks with Goodman for the Financial Times.
Updates, 12/25: Inside Llewyn Davis is “a mature, surprisingly soulful work from these forever fraternal filmmakers, lifelong collaborators who can surely relate to the idea of not knowing how to go on as an artist without your creative partner by your side,” writes Josef Braun, who also interviews Isaac. So, too, do Erin Coulehan for Slate and Conor Oberst for Interview.
Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan talks with the Coens about writing the screenplay. Ethan: “I’ll tell you the truth. We wrote this script not only quicker than we usually do most of them, but maybe even quicker than we’ve done any of them. I don’t know why.” Then he and Joel talk about why they chose “The Death of Queen Jane” as the song Llewyn would play for Bud Grossman.
Update, 12/26: Kelly Vance in the East Bay Express: “Isaac is simply magical as this ephemeral but utterly familiar character—he has the voice, the musicianship, the look, the comic comebacks, the stormy attitude—we can spot Dylan’s tantrums from Dont Look Back as well as Van Ronk’s legendary drunken onstage rants. Llewyn’s song for his ailing father at the hospital recalls the fabled real-life meetings of Dylan and his idol, Woody Guthrie, as a sort of mythical shadow play, something for which no knowledge of folknik lore is really necessary. But if you happen to know the story, Llewyn’s singing breaks your heart.”
Update, 12/27: “From their earliest films onwards, the Coens have used and exploited varying shapes and forms of the horrific for their comic potential.” Max Winter‘s overview of the “Coen Canon” at Press Play is accompanied by a video essay by Nelson Carvajal.
Update, 1/2: “Discussion of the film seems to gravitate around three themes,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody, who returns to the film, walks us through some of that discussion, and then wraps: “Llewyn Davis interprets traditional songs and invests them with the full force of his emotional turmoil, his grand depth of feeling. And it’s not enough: Dylan turns up and radically refashions the elements of folk music by way of his own poetic gift, an art of radical neoclassicism that takes a tradition and remakes it even to the breaking point, to the point of his own break with it. He was a one-man New Wave.”
Updates, 1/6: Michael Smith finds that the Coens’ “patented smart-ass humor has been replaced by (or has perhaps deepened into) something more emotional and affectionate, a lot of the credit for which should be given to Isaac and soundtrack supervisor T-Bone Burnett.”
Patrick Z. McGavin: “As shot by Delbonnel and designed by Jess Gonchar, the American landscape has never felt so restrictive and marked by hallucinatory dread, expressed by the the perilously narrow backroads and garishly lit all-night diners conjuring all manner of creative exhaustion and artistic depletion. It plays like a charged and deranged version of the Hades episode of Leopold Bloom’s incident-fraught carriage ride to Dignam’s funeral in James Joyce’s Ulysses, ending like it began, with a man confronting his own oblivion.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis is an elegy for the also-rans who were good, but not quite good enough,” writes Duncan Gray. “This is America; there are a lot of them.”