Inside Llewyn Davis — Reviewed

Inside Llewyn Davis

The acting and soundtrack may be pitch-perfect, but is the latest Coen Brothers film just too morose? Andrew Kirkland gets inside Llewyn Davis…

Joel and Ethan Coen, the so-called ‘Two-Headed Director’ have a propensity to play the puppet masters, toying with their protagonists and putting them through the mill. Let’s be honest though, it is usually bloody good fun.

From the high jinx of Nicolas Cage’s H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona (1987) and Jeff Bridges’ rug-themed adventures as The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), to Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man (2009), there’s an almost sadistic element to the Coen brothers’ films.

Loosely categorised somewhere between cult and mainstream cinema, the Coens often focus on tragic, or at least deeply unfortunate, circumstances conveyed with a heavy dose of dry, sardonic humour.

Their latest offering, Inside Llewyn Davis, charts the ups and (mainly) downs of a folk singer, partly based on the autobiography of Dave Van Ronk.

“Van Ronk’s contemporaries included Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, with jazz, folk and blues being his hallmark”

Known as ‘The Mayor of MacDougal Street’, Van Ronk’s contemporaries included Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, with jazz, folk and blues being his hallmark. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1936, Van Ronk became synonymous with the music scene in Greenwich Village, where he grew in stature. Although regarded by Dylan as his ‘first muse’, he remained in New York for most of his life until his death in 2002.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is the hapless underdog beloved by the Coens — as much as he tries, Davis finds himself at the mercy of bad luck, some of which is his own making. A former merchant marine who plies his trade in return for little money among the smoky clubs of 1960s Greenwich Village, Davis is forced to sleep on the couches of friends and acquaintances. To make matters worse, his music partner Mike has recently committed suicide. Following a gig at the Gaslight Cafe, he’s beaten up by a shadowy figure in an alleyway — the back story to which constitutes the remainder of the film.

A week earlier, Davis wakes up alone in the apartment of friends Mitch (Ethan Phillips) and Lillian (Robin Bartlett). On his way out, he inadvertently lets their cat escape and, without a key, Davis has no choice but to take his new friend to the West Village where he stays with Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). However, Davis’s new hosts are less than welcoming, as Jean reveals she’s pregnant with a baby that could be his. She condemns him with the killer line: “Everything you touch turns to shit, like King Midas’s idiot brother”.

He visits his manager Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson) and is told his album isn’t selling. He’d also sent a copy to Chicago producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) who hadn’t replied. Facing incessant vitriol from Jean due to his possible indiscretion, and following a payment of $200 he accepted for recording an eventually successful song for which he waived the royalties, Davis sets off on a road trip to Chicago to audition for the enigmatic Grossman, with a view to obtaining the holy grail he so craves: a recording contract.

“Inside Llewyn Davis is a film much more melancholic in tone than we’re used to from the Coens”

Inside Llewyn Davis is a film much more melancholic in tone than we’re used to from the Coens. Set in winter, with grey hues prevalent not only in the sky but also in the face of its protagonist, there is an increasing air of resignation as Davis faces each setback.

The opening scene features a very heartfelt performance of Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, a bluesy folk song which encapsulates the main character’s plight and is indicative of the entire plot; the downbeat music is interwoven into the screenplay’s DNA. The title of the film is quite literal; not only is it the name of his album, but as the film progresses, we gradually get ‘inside’ Davis’s head.

The primary theme throughout the film is his inability to rise out of a desperate situation towards success. Following one of his performances, a young Bob Dylan is introduced to the stage — the point being Dylan had the charisma to go on to enjoy the status Davis could only dream of.

This relationship hinted at can be compared to Antonio Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as portrayed in Amadeus (1984); the seasoned musician who has worked diligently yet without major success over the years is upstaged, much to his chagrin, by the naive little upstart whose star rises much quicker without him ‘paying his dues’. The analogy doesn’t end there. In one scene, Davis is seen strumming along to Mozart’s Requiem and the casting of F. Murray Abraham, who played Salieri in Milos Forman’s highly acclaimed film, are perhaps subtle nods in this direction.

“Oscar Isaac’s Davis is pitched just right; without self-pity or an unlikeable insensitivity, his is a character whose luck has almost run out”

Oscar Isaac’s Davis is pitched just right; without self-pity or an unlikeable insensitivity (save for a few occasions), his is a character whose luck has almost run out, yet he continues unabated. Even though he seems arrogant and aloof at times, Isaac’s adeptness in keeping us interested in his struggles is the mark of a talented actor.

While Davis’s fortunes experience slight peaks and deep troughs, Isaac manages to maintain an understated approach, in keeping with the almost joyless, yet witty perspective of the screenplay. With each of the songs except for one performed live, there’s pressure on Isaac to impress on the acting and singing front; and he delivers on both.

Carey Mulligan, who has built on her reputation with contrasting roles in Shame (2011) and The Great Gatsby (2013), expands her repertoire as the venom-spitting Jean. Mulligan’s role is relatively small, but her character represents Davis’s incompetency to deal with situations and is an integral part in allowing us to understand the motives of the main character. Justin Timberlake, who has been on the receiving end of criticism for his acting, is on screen quite briefly but does get to sing a song or two.

John Goodman, one of the Coen’s mainstays, makes an appearance as one of Davis’s fellow road trippers and enjoys one of the film’s lighter moments, mocking folk music and the strangeness of seeing a man with a cat in tow.

Inside Llewyn Davis might be too morose for some, but with superb acting and a fine soundtrack, it’s a must-see for anyone with a love for music or a fascination with the Coen brothers’ own imitable style.

Andrew Kirkland

Inside Llewyn Davis is released in UK cinemas nationwide on Friday 24th January 2014

See FACT Liverpool for cinema times

Posted on 20/01/2014 by thedoublenegative