This review was originally published on May 20th, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
While I do sometimes get misty-eyed at the movies, it's rare that tears ever start pouring down my face. And when it happens (and, again, it's rare) it most often happens at some point of catharsis - when characters I know and love experience great triumph or tragedy. Why was it, then, that I was bawling at the five-minute mark during Joel and Ethan Coen's "Inside Llewyn Davis?" The story hadn't started. I didn't even know anyone's name. Was it the cat?
Well, yes, it might have partially been the cat. If you remember Gabriel Byrne's Tom Reagan chasing his hat in "Miller's Crossing," that tune is reprised only this time it's a cat and he does more than just run away. Some typically Coens-ish uncooperative spatial geography (they've recreated those drops from "Blood Simple" in every film) forces badly-bent vagabond folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) to take care of a cat, at least until he can contact its owner (Ethan Phillips). That means a long ride from the enriched milieu of Columbia University's Upper West Side all the way down to freewheelin' Greenwich Village - a descent into Purgatory that the animal just knows isn't going to go well.
With just a few strums on the soundtrack's guitar and some carefully placed period cars the Coens recreate the early 1960s, the fulcrum moment when conformist Eisenhower America iss about to segue into Vietnam and counter-culture. Llewyn Davis is damn talented, but beaten low. He's trying to create a name for himself as a solo act, and we learn that his former partner just committed suicide. Davis may be a tiny bit ahead of his time - he isn't a fresh-faced folk revivalist in a clean sweater - he's a genuine troubadour. He's working class (son of a merchant marine, when he isn't shipping out himself) and lives hand to mouth. With no fixed address he bums nights off couches, frequently from fellow musicians Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan.) He has the drive to be a star but he has two key problems - bad luck and, to be frank, he's something of a jerk.
We in the audience have no trouble seeing into his soul, but to the rest of the world he can be off-putting and just the type of person you'll stop offering favors. "Inside Llewyn Davis" shows how his bad decisions just repeat the cycle, and I look forward to hearing everyone's interpretation of the ending.
Despite some ambiguity, this is not "A Serious Man." This is far and away the most straightforward thing the Coens have ever done. There's very little of their trickster-ish ways, either in the story or the dialogue. (There are quotables, don't get me wrong, but by Coens standards very few.) It's a character piece, and one of the best, and most understated, movies I've ever seen about the grieving process.
You don't have to know much about the Greenwich Village folk scene to enjoy this film, but those in the know will smile at the nods to John Hammond, Albert Grossman, the Holy Modal Rounders, Mark Spoelstra and especially Dave Van Ronk. What you shouldn't expect from this film, however, are big set pieces or dragged-out confrontations. Carey Mulligan gets some demonstrative moments as a mirror to Davis, but there's no implication that she will be the one to change him. This is a movie about a guy who repeatedly takes it on the chin - someone who is tired - someone who is condemned to a mediocrity and "just existing." And it goes at two speeds: melancholy and just real, real sad.
It's no coincidence that the best scene in this film (and what will likely be the best scene of 2013) is opposite F. Murray Abraham, forever associated with the patron saint of mediocrity, Antonio Salieri. (We also hear a snippet of Mozart's Requiem at the beginning of the film, just to lay the groundwork.) Abraham plays a kingmaker, who sits stonefaced as Davis plays his heart out, wet and cold and too poor to afford a winter coat.
"I don't see any money in this," Abraham says. He doesn't say Davis isn't good. Of course, change is coming in the music scene - a change that will fit Davis' tune. If he can just hold out a little longer.
SCORE: 9.5 / 10