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Inside Llewyn Davis: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // R // January 19, 2016
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted February 3, 2016 | E-mail the Author

It's as a good a day as any to mull over Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): there's thick fog in the forecast all day, no sun in sight, and the mountains of snow from last week's record-breaking blizzard are dissolving to miserable slush. This is a chilly, unforgiving film, depicting one week in the life of fictional folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) and all the misery---self-inflicted or otherwise---that's heaped upon him in just over 100 minutes. Set in New York, Chicago, and the long stretch of highway between both cities, Inside Llewyn Davis drops us into the winter of 1961: folk music has been flourishing in Greenwich Village for more than a decade...but Bob Dylan hadn't arrived yet, so the genre hadn't reached the levels of popularity and acceptance it would during the next few years.

As a central figure, Llewyn is magnetic and repulsive in almost equal measure; he's his own worst enemy and a bane to ex-kinda-girlfriend Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), who may or may not be carrying his child. Armed with an orange cat, a guitar, and no winter coat, Llewyn is a stubborn starving artist unwilling to change his ways for an easy paycheck and the possibility of mainstream acceptance. He's good enough, sure, but promoters don't view him as a marketable figure, even though his rags-to-rags story makes him "authentic", whatever that means. Llewyn is still torn up about the death of musical partner Mike Timlin and his solo LP has barely made a ripple. Personal details like these---in addition to clues about his fractured family relationships, including married sister Joy (Jeanine Serralles) and invalid father Hugh (Stan Carp)---are sprinkled throughout the film but rarely explored. It's an effective tool in helping us accept Llewyn at face value: he's easy to root for but hard to love, as good an underdog as any.

Bookended by a particularly low point in Llewyn's life (an outburst at a local hangout, the Gaslight Poetry Cafe, which leads to violence in a back alley), Inside Llewyn Davis attempts to capture what might be a turning point in both his personal life and the folk scene as a whole. This circular tale hints that he's doomed to repeat past mistakes, but we're at least shown how and why he's made certain decisions. Still, it's the middle portion that offers the largest detour and most memorable moments: the desperate recording of a novelty song with Jean's husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver), an impromptu road trip with reticent beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and boorish jazz man Roland Turner (John Goodman), and a tense audition with promoter Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham).

As a whole, Inside Llewyn Davis holds together because of its performances, atmosphere, and the obvious care that only results from a filmmaking team with more than 30 years of experience. Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan, last seen together in 2011's Drive, make a perfectly believable pair long past the point of friendly small talk: they're scathingly honest for better or worse, and the shift in dynamics when husband Jim is around makes everything that much better. Smaller supporting performances, aside from those already named, are filled admirably by the likes of Stark Sands (Generation Kill), Ethan Phillips (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Robin Bartlett (Shutter Island), Max Casella (Ed Wood), Bradley Mott (The Accidental Tourist), and many more. The film's visual style also goes a long way in selling its bleak, hazy outlook: lensed by French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie), it trades in candy colors for desaturated grays, greens, blues, and the unmistakable rust color of Llewyn's roaming feline companion.

Yet it's the music and "live" performances that end up sticking out the farthest, both during the movie and in hindsight. Inside Llewyn Davis, like only a few other films I've seen over the years, is one in which I listened to (and immediately bought) the soundtrack beforehand. Traditional and newly-written songs are performed quite capably by the actors, and are almost always played unbroken during the film itself. Artistic intent or clever marketing ploy? That's up for debate, but it works wonders here: the terrific songs ("Hang Me, Oh Hang Me", "Fare Thee Well", Hedy West's "Five Hundred Miles", Ewan MacColl's "The Shoals of Herring", Brendan Behan's "The Auld Triangle", Bob Dylan's "Farewell", and others) don't so much steal scenes as they punctuate them, reminding us why Llewyn loves and hates his career at the same time. It's all tied together somewhat loosely with biographical elements from real-life folk fixture Dave Van Ronk's memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, upon which Inside Llewyn Davis is partially framed.

Though its somewhat circular ending and intimidating atmosphere may not sit too well with those expecting a non-stop barrage of Coen Brothers quirks (which there are several of, and occasionally sidestep the film's momentum), Inside Llewyn Davis hit me right in the gut the first time through and has only improved in subsequent viewings. Presented as more of an organic, patchwork summary of the era it depicts (not necessarily with clinical accuracy, like AMC's Mad Men or David Fincher's Zodiac), it packs an emotional wallop and is unflinchingly honest in the way its characters bristle against one another instead of sounding like overly rehearsed smooth-talking. It's also why Criterion's Blu-ray suits the film so well: it's been treated with lots of care and respect, paired with a near-perfect A/V presentation and bonus features that feel like a natural extension of the film's stylized but thematically accurate world.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p image is sourced from a 4K digital transfer approved by directors Joel and Ethan Coen. It preserves the film's milky, cold appearance perfectly well; there's obviously no dirt or damage to speak of, and the color palette has a uniquely uniform appearance from start to finish. Image detail, contrast levels, and textures are strong though somewhat diffused at times due to the film's intended style, while the lack of digital imperfections ensures that we're getting a presentation equal to some theatrical showings. This is simply a great presentation of difficult source material and, though it's hasn't been proven that this disc represents any discernible difference in quality over Sony's 2014 Blu-ray, that's hardly a complaint. My only slight issue with Criterion's release is that it wasn't expanded to two discs; given the massive amount of HD content on here (roughly six hours total), a little more breathing room may have yielded results even closer to perfection.

DISCLAIMER: The resized, compressed screen captures on this page are promotional and do not represent the title under review.

Equally up to the challenge (if not more so) is this disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, with optional English subtitles during the film only. In contrast to Inside Llewyn Davis' cold and foggy atmosphere, the audio is distinctly warm at times without necessarily calling attention to itself. This is never more evident than during the film's numerous "live" music performances, whether it's a studio session or impromptu acoustic number. Channel separation and clarity are uniformly strong, real channel activity and LFE are smartly used on many occasions, and the dialogue never fights for attention along the way. Overall, I can't really find any room for improvement here: what's presented gets the job done perfectly, and I'm more than comfortable with awarding it a perfect score for those reasons alone.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

As usual, Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate. This one-disc release is locked for Region A players only; it's packaged in Criterion's standard "stocky" keepcase and includes simple and appropriate one-sided artwork. The fold-out Poster Insert also includes technical details and an essay by film critic Kent Jones.

Bonus Features

Sony's 2014 Blu-ray had only one extra: an excellent behind-the-scenes documentary aptly named "Inside Inside Llewyn Davis" (42 minutes); thankfully, that returns here along with a mountain of terrific new and vintage supplements. It's amazing that everything fit so neatly on one disc, all while looking and sounding uniformly good.

First up is a brand new and exclusive Audio Commentary with distinguished music authors Robert Christgau, David Hajdu, and Sean Wilentz, who not surprisingly focus their conversation on Inside Llewyn Davis' music and the era it depicts. There's a lot of accessible information here for newcomers and seasoned folk music fans alike, most of which will further deepen your appreciation and understanding of the film itself. The lack of participation by Ethan and Joel Coen is a little disappointing...but given their track record with commentaries, it's hardly a surprise at this point.

"The First 100 Feet, The Last 100 Feet" (42 minutes) is an enjoyable chat between Guillermo del Toro and Joel and Ethan Coen, covering a modest variety of topics including early influences, characterization, the themes of Inside Llewyn Davis and more. In contrast, "The Way of Folk" (16 minutes) is a shorter but more focused conversation about the film's music with the Coen Brothers and T-Bone Burnett, who discuss the song selection process, the 1960s folk scene in New York, and similar topics. A third interview, "Before the Flood" (19 minutes), features musician/author Elijah Wald (collaborator with Dave Van Ronk on The Mayor of MacDougal Street, on which Inside Llewyn Davis is loosely based), who likewise discusses the 1960s folk scene before and after Bob Dylan came to town.

Undoubtedly the heavyweight of this bonus features collection, Christopher Wilcha's "Another Day, Another Time" (102 minutes) is a concert film celebrating the music of Inside Llewyn Davis. Unlike Down from the Mountain, a 2000 documentary/concert which celebrated the music of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, this seems a little more calculated: shot at New York's Town Hall in September 2013 (several months before the movie and film's wide release), it's nonetheless an enjoyable show with plenty of great performances and moments. Participants include Oscar Isaac, Chris Thile and Punch Brothers, Marcus Mumford, Joan Baez, Rhiannon Giddens, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Adam Driver, Colin Meloy, The Avett Brothers, T-Bone Burnett, The Coen Brothers, and more. Like the other supplements, it's presented in 1080p but limited to lossy Dolby Digital audio (in 5.1, at least).

Finally, Dan Drasin's Sunday (1961, 17 minutes) is a short black-and-white documentary about the clash between folk musicians and police in New York's Washington Square Park one fateful afternoon; the location, featured in at least one scene during Inside Llewyn Davis, had been a weekly meeting location for aspiring musicians for over a decade at that point. It's a raw, revealing, and perfectly appropriate supplement for the main feature; though optional commentary would have added a bit of context at times, Sunday works almost as well on its own two feet.

We also get six Trailers for the film, likewise presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital sound. Overall, it's a fascinating and well-rounded group of extras that far outpaces Sony's Blu-ray...but is it worth a double dip? Definitely, if you're a fan of the film, as there's a lot of valuable insight about the music and era depicted during the main feature.

Final Thoughts

Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis marks another fine effort from the beloved writing and directing duo: loaded with great performances, terrific dialogue, and a compelling story about a "failed" musician's life in a crowded world, there's more to take in than what's on the surface. It's got a solid amount of replay value and just enough missing pieces to make it irresistible for those who don't like everything spoon-fed, yet it's accessible enough to draw in music fans who aren't accustomed to the Coen brand of filmmaking. Criterion has put together quite a fine package here: arriving almost two full years after Sony's 2014 Blu-ray, we're treated to more than six hours of extras including a feature-length concert film and even a few appearances from the reclusive Coens. Top that off with a near-perfect A/V presentation and you've got a disc worthy of our highest rating: DVD Talk Collector Series.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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