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Folkin’ good

Coen brothers’ latest effort blends brilliant acting, music to stellar effect

When you go to see a Coen Brothers’ film, you usually know roughly what you are getting into. You can expect the movie to be somewhat funny and somewhat dark, with the respective levels of each varying from time to time. You can be sure that there will be top-notch witty dialogue and that the film will be character-driven — centered not on the often twisted and confusing plot, but rather on the eccentric individuals who inhabit the Coen universe. You can also bet that John Goodman will show up somewhere.

Given this roughly consistent set of attributes, you might expect that the Coens would begin to bore people. In reality, though, as is the case for their most recent effort, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” each film the brothers unleash feels like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

The film comprises a small slice of life of the quasi-fictional folk singer Llewyn Davis (played by the fantastic Oscar Isaac) in the now-famous Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s. For such a compelling film, there’s a relative absence of anything in the way of plotting. What minimal storyline there is results from Davis’ half-hearted attempts to make something of himself, and his utter, crushing failure to do so.

From his floundering music career to his complicated relationship with Jean (played by Casey Mulligan) and even his troubles with a respected friend’s cat (a fantastic storyline, you will find), the titular singer is the butt of some great cosmic joke, getting knocked down at every turn, never really making any forward streaks. Though it shouldn’t be too much a spoiler to say that nothing too profound happens in the film, this absence of plot really enhances the punch at the end.

Besides, the story arc isn’t even the main attraction. As is the case for nearly every Coen project, each scene is written impeccably well, and every line is individually crafted to reveal character or develop the mood. It’s a hallmark of the Coen craft that every conversation, no matter how mundane or obscure in purpose, sucks the audience right in. Added to this, the movie is flat-out hilarious and warrants a viewing in that respect alone.

The Coens aren’t the only ones who deserve praise, however. Isaac gives a stellar performance in the lead role, and the supporting characters are played brilliantly (with John Goodman making an appearance in possibly his most entertaining role yet). As an added bonus, the film features a wonderful soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett and performed by Mumford and Sons, the Punch Brothers, and others.

“If it was never new, and it never get’s old, then it’s a folk song,” says Llewyn Davis to the crowd at a small bar where he’s playing toward the beginning of the film. The line is especially poignant because its larger significance in Davis’ life. With side-stories that don’t go anywhere, a twisted central plotline, untied ends and mysterious characters, it’s clear that the film was created as a folktale of its own. And with the amazing writing and direction of the Coen Brothers and the fantastic acting of its cast, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of many must-see movies this season.


Published January 19, 2014 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau

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