Joel and Ethan Coen’s new folk-music tale “Inside Llewyn Davis” has struck a chord with critics — make that a few chords, plus a couple of verses for good measure. The film, which stars Oscar Isaac as a struggling folk singer in 1960s New York, has garnered near-unanimous positive reviews.
The Times’ own Kenneth Turan writes, “While the bleak, funny, exquisitely made ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ echoes familiar themes and narrative journeys, it also goes its own way and becomes a singular experience, one of [the Coen brothers’] best films." The title role is “beautifully played” by Isaac, “who had to be both believable as a musician and a good enough actor to appear in every scene” (the Juilliard-trained actor sings and plays guitar in the film).
Turan adds, “It’s the film’s empathy with [Isaac’s character], its sympathy with the plight of artists in general, that makes ‘Inside’ an unexpectedly emotional piece.”
The New York Times’ A.O. Scott calls the film an “intoxicating ramble through Greenwich Village in 1961,” as well as “a brilliant magpie’s nest of surrealism, period detail and pop-culture scholarship.” Although the character of Llewyn Davis is a hard-luck case, Scott says, his world “is also an enchanted place, animated by the dark, nimble magic of the Coens and their collaborators ... amid the smart pastiche and the sly, carefully constructed jokes there is a thread of real emotion, a strain of melancholy deeper and more mysterious than mere sympathy.”
Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal writes, “As an evocation of a seminal period in popular culture, the production is peerless.” The centerpiece of the film “is Mr. Isaac’s phenomenal performance. He’s an actor, first and foremost, who is also a musician, but you’d never know it from his self-effacing mastery; he looks, and sounds, to be a seasoned folk singer with an uncanny gift for naturalistic acting." As for the rest of the cast, “There’s none of the Coen brothers’ trademark archness in the superb ensemble,” which includes Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Stark Sands, F. Murray Abraham and John Goodman.
Stephanie Zacharek of the Village Voice agrees with Turan that “Llewyn Davis” deserves a high rank in the Coen canon. She writes, “‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is the warmest picture they’ve ever made, 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." Zacharek adds that the film “gets everything softly, quietly right,” from the music, supervised by T Bone Burnett, to the cinematography, by Bruno Delbonnel, right down to the orange cat, played by several orange cats.
USA Today’s Claudia Puig says that “Though [Davis’] story is enigmatic, the film itself is brilliantly acted, gorgeously shot and altogether captivating.” She adds, “Isaac is excellent, superbly conveying Davis’ profound sorrow as well as his snarky humor and manipulative tendencies. Mulligan is also terrific as his vitriolic but sweet-singing ex. The rest of the ensemble cast is pitch-perfect, except John Goodman, who’s hard to buy as a strung-out heroin addict.”
And Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir writes, “If you require a movie in which you’re always rooting for the hero (or find his struggle heroic in the first place), this one might not be it. But for my money, the 33-year-old Isaac … gives the year’s breakout performance, and ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is one of the Coens’ richest, strangest and most potent films.”