Synopsis: Singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) bums around 1961 Greenwich Village, toiling in the folk music scene and couch surfing with anyone who will have him. Davis is a talented musician but not truly a great one and after the death of his singing partner, he drifts through life believing that he is better than his circumstances but unwilling or unable to change them. He travels from New York to Chicago and back and has interactions with a number of more successful, "together" friends, usually while transporting a cat, and whether or not his experiences leave him a changed man or not is left to the discretion of the viewer.
What I Liked: One of the things I love most about the Coen Brothers is their undeniable style that oozes through every film they make. You never watch a Coen Brothers movie without coming out knowing that you just watched a Coen Brothers movie. But at the same time, they never beat you over the head with their Coen-ness. Each of their movies centers on a drastically different subject or subject matter (though this one shares some obvious connections to O Brother Where Art Thou?) but there's this sense of familiarity that goes hand in hand with everything they do. That, I think, is why they can take chances and piece their movies together in strange ways and still expect the audience to buy in, because there's an existing comfortability that comes along with each project.
Inside Llewyn Davis is sort of the quintessential Coen Brothers movie. They've chosen a interesting but perhaps not all that accessible character and then they throw the audience right into a week in his life with very little build up but we immediately buy in because it all seems familiar (assuming you've had some experience with previous Coen works). This lets them really put you in Davis's shoes and helps to make him a much more likable character than he really has any business being. He's a melancholy, grumpy bum in many ways but the movie lets you (or perhaps forces you) to see the world through his eyes and it works beautifully.
Isaac is a tremendous medium for the Coen's particular brand of darkly comedic art. Davis is at the same time witty, sulky, and subtly charismatic and Isaac hits each mark perfectly. It doesn't hurt that he is an outstanding musician and every time he picks up his guitar is a glorious trip into the heart of 60s folk. Seriously, this is absolutely perfect casting. And the supporting players, featuring the typically strong batch of great actors in small roles we've come to expect from the Coens, take turns setting Isaac up to shine. Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, F. Murray Abraham, and John Goodman, among others, all have some glorious moments and all serve to further Davis' progression through his own personal Odyssey. Inside Llewyn Davis is also near-perfect from a technical standpoint and the cinematography, while a little understated, is superb.
What I Didn't Like: Um, that it ended?
In Conclusion: I've been looking forward to this one and building it up in my mind for a year now and somehow it still managed to exceed my expectations. Inside Llewyn Davis is smart, it has a strong emotional core, and like most Coen movies, it is darkly hilarious in just the right ways. It is a brilliant, heart-achingly genuine piece of filmmaking. This is one of the very best movies of the year for me and I've had the soundtrack playing on repeat for three days now. If I had had the opportunity to see it before I wrote my Top 10 list and Top Performances list, the movie would have come out third or fourth and Isaac's work would have been top five. Love, love, love it.
Grade: A+ (Rated R for language and some sexual references)