Review – Inside Llewyn Davis

The landscape of American film has changed considerably in the 30 years since Joel and Ethan Coen announced themselves with their blackly comic neo-noir debut Blood Simple.

It may be as difficult to pin down as its leading character, but Inside Llewyn Davis is achingly beautiful and melacholic and another masterpiece from the Coens

It may be as difficult to pin down as its leading character, but Inside Llewyn Davis is achingly beautiful and melancholic and another masterpiece from the Coens

Once dismissively bracketed as ‘arthouse’, the Coens are among a handful of gifted filmmakers to have transformed the cinematic panorama without compromising their unique sensibility; to the extent their bleakly violent 2007 masterpiece No Country For Old Men won Best Film and Best Director Oscars and made a ton of money at the box office to boot.

With this, their 16th film, the Coens almost out-Coen themselves with a Russian doll of a movie that’s as enigmatic as it is engrossing.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) takes to the stage in Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) takes to the stage in Inside Llewyn Davis

The roster of seemingly cursed characters with a leaning towards self-destruction is a growing one in the Coens’ filmography and Llewyn Davis’ tractionless folk musician is right up there with Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There‘s Ed Crane Larry Gopnik from A Serious Man.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is, like the songs he plays, “never new and never gets old” and spends his days drifting around New York’s early-60s Greenwich Village playing the odd gig and relying on the generosity of friends for a place to lay his head. You get the sense things have been this way since his former musical partner Mike committed suicide a few years earlier, while his only solo album, Inside Llewyn Davis, has fallen through the critical and commercial cracks.

Please Mr Kennedy! Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) performs session guitar for friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver) in Inside Llewyn Davis

Please Mr Kennedy! Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) performs session guitar for friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver) in Inside Llewyn Davis

His inertia has left him bitter, despite (or because of) it being almost entirely his own fault. Llewyn simply can’t fathom how or why the folk-by-numbers tunes of the innocuous Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) “connect with people” and can’t hide his derision when playing session guitar on the inane folk-pop pap Please Mr Kennedy (the film’s standout hilarious scene) written by his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake). Meanwhile, Jim and Llewyn’s ex-flame, the perennially angry Jean (Carey Mulligan), are also starting to make waves on the folk scene as a duet – another sign that he’s being left behind.

Opportunities present themselves, but Llewyn has a compulsion to snatch defeat from the jaws of something more prosperous. An audition for respected Chicago producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) comes to naught when, instead of playing something catchy, Llewyn instead chooses the sombre ballad The Death Of Queen Jane. Grossman’s pithy summation “I don’t see a lot of money here” firstly reminds us why it’s called the music business, and secondly underscores the fact Llewyn’s always going to be a square box trying to fit in a round hole.

The angry Jean (Carey Mulligan) in Inside Llewyn Davis

The angry Jean (Carey Mulligan) in Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coens’ very best films open themselves up to multiple interpretations and Inside Llewyn Davis is no different. For me, the oppressive sense of death hangs over the film like a shroud, to the extent that it could be argued the world we see Llewyn wandering around is some kind of purgatory.

Bruno Delbonnel’s chilly cinematography lends the film a ghostly pallor, while the eerie road trip Llewyn takes with beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and obnoxious Dr John-alike jazz muso Roland Turner (the one and only John Goodman) from New York to Chicago is like something out of a supernatural nightmare, with ominous-sounding vehicles screeching past their car.

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) and the cat he can't seem to shake off in Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) and the cat he can’t seem to shake off in Inside Llewyn Davis

Furthermore, the cat(s) that Llewyn cannot seem to escape from have long been regarded as a symbol of death, while the fact one of the cats is called Ulysses could be a reference to Tennyson’s celebrated poem of the same name (rather than James Joyce’s novel) about a man with the spectre of death hanging over him.

The songs Llewyn performs are also soaked in morbidity, from The Death Of Queen Jane, to Hang Me Oh Hang Me (“wouldn’t mind the hangin… but the layin in the grave so long”), while the film’s elliptical structure could be seen as purgatorial. Mind you, it just as easily be about a poor schmuck living day-to-day and who gets saddled with a cat. That’s the Coens for you.

The Dr John-alike obnoxious jazz muso Roland Turner (John Goodman) in Inside Llewyn Davis

The Dr John-alike obnoxious jazz muso Roland Turner (John Goodman) in Inside Llewyn Davis

Isaac gives a superlative performance as the downtrodden Llewyn, a curious figure who’s his own worst enemy but somehow illicits our sympathy. There’s something both maddening and admirable about his bloody-mindedness.

The Coens have been accused in the past of being unsympathetic towards their characters and it’s a charge that’s been levelled at Llewyn Davis. This is to miss the point, however. Llewyn is flawed, of that there is no doubt, but Isaac injects the character with real pathos.

It may be as difficult to pin down as its leading character, but Inside Llewyn Davis is achingly beautiful and melancholic and another masterpiece from the Coens.

Advertisements

38 comments

  1. CMrok93 · January 28, 2014

    Good review. It isn’t the happiest movie out there to see, but it still deals with something very real and honest that everybody deals with, mainly any artist of any kind.

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      Thanks as always Dan. It’s honesty is what makes it such a heartfelt picture, one that’s stayed with me since seeing it.

  2. Victor De Leon · January 28, 2014

    Great review! Can’t wait to see this one. Thanks!

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      Cheers Vic. I’m confident you’ll enjoy it. If not; you’re wrong!

  3. jjames36 · January 28, 2014

    Great review. And totally agreed.

    Hadn’t considered a purgatory/death interpretation, but it makes a certain sense now that I’ve read it. Great work!

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      You’re very mind, thank you. The death angle struck me as I was sitting there and I guess I’ve sold myself on it whether it’s valid or not!

  4. ruth · January 28, 2014

    WOW, great review Mark! You made this sound like an amazing film and be that as it may, I’m kind of disenchanted with the film. I guess I’m one of those people who just didn’t *get* the Coens. I do agree w/ Isaac giving a superlative performance here though, I think he’s what kept me engaged throughout the film.

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      You don’t *get* the Coens??!!! Blasphemy! I won’t hear it Ruth. You need re educating!! Sorry to hear you didn’t have a similar reaction to it than I did.

      • ruth · January 28, 2014

        Ahahaha, and I’m in Minnesota!! It’s even more blasphemous I think not to LOVE the Coens with all your body and soul as he’s so well-loved here, but sorry, I just don’t. But hey, I didn’t say I hated the film, I appreciated it to some degrees, but can’t say I love it. But I do love Isaac’s performance, so there 😀

      • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

        Well said!

  5. ckckred · January 28, 2014

    Nice review. It’s between this and her as the best of 2013 in my opinion. What I love about this movie is how the Coens depict Llewyn, he’s an unsympathetic guy that you sympathize for. Isaac’s performance really brings the character alive.

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      Not seen Her yet, but I am itching to off the back of the near universal praise there’s been for it. Isaac is so natural in the role it feels like it was written for him. Thanks for the kind words my friend.

  6. Nick Powell · January 28, 2014

    Glad you touch upon both the cinematography and the “hard to like” attitude the Coens use in all of their films with their leads. This is such a masterpiece of a film on so many different levels and it’s oh so subtle. Good review!

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      Thanks a lot Nick. Masterpiece is the best and only word I can use to describe it really.

  7. Joseph@thecinemamonster · January 28, 2014

    “Another masterpiece from the Coens” says it all. Totally agree, easily one of the best of 2013. Outstanding article, friend-o!

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      You are, as always a gentleman. Glad you agree. This is one of my favourites of the last 12 months.

  8. Tom · January 28, 2014

    Excellent review, sir. Nailed this one on the head. I thought it was “achingly beautiful and melancholic” as well but I couldn’t form the right words to describe that. This movie is really something special and I am compelled to think that even more because Llewyn Davis is not a particularly likable fellow. Excellent movie.

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      Thank you immensely Tom. This has stayed with me more than a lot of movies of recent times. The scene of the cat staring out of the subway window with Fare Thee Well playing was simply beautiful.

      • Tom · January 28, 2014

        Absolutely. Man this movie has been growing on me more and more as well since seeing it weeks ago. That scene was great, but one of my favorites was the trio of Mulligan, Timberlake and that other guy (sorry fella, can’t remember your name lol) singing 500 Miles Away. Incredible moment.

      • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

        Ah, you’re referring to Stark Sands, aka Troy Nelson. That was a great moment too, you’re right.

  9. CinemaClown · January 28, 2014

    Brilliantly written. Coens’ aren’t one of my favourites but I found Inside Llewyn Davis more accessible than any of their previous works, barring No Country For Old Men. Also, I think it getting snubbed by the Academy, when seen from the other paradigm, kind of perfectly suits the story of Llewyn Davis 😀

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      Ah, that’s very kind of you to say. I like where your head’s at re: Oscars. It’s a crime, but you get the sense Llewyn would prefer it this way.

  10. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · January 28, 2014

    Great review as always man. Hopefully checking this out tomorrow and really can’t wait.

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      Chris. I think you’re gonna love it. You’re a man of refined taste. Looking forward to your review mate.

  11. keith7198 · January 28, 2014

    Very nice review. I’m a big fan of the film. It didn’t hit meet right after viewing it but over time I’ve grown to really appreciate what all the Coens were doing.

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      That’s interesting; it’s stayed with me too, especially the scene in the subway with the cat looking out of the window. Loved that. Thanks for the kind words.

  12. Mark Walker · January 28, 2014

    Marvellous review Mark. I seen it last night and I’m still trying to process it all. Needless to say, I loved it. One of the years very best and scandalous that it’s been omitted for a lot of Oscars.

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      Really pleased that you liked it Mark. We’re definitely on the same page; it’s one of the best of 2013 for me also.

  13. theipc · January 28, 2014

    I love the Coens but I have no desire to see this at all. I’ll live this one through you.

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      You should give it a try, you never know! It’s the Coens at their best in my book.

  14. Popcorn Nights · January 28, 2014

    Nice, insightful review Mark. Haven’t seen it but will do in the next few weeks.

    • Three Rows Back · January 28, 2014

      That’s kind of you to say, thanks mate. I hope you like it; would be interested to read your thoughts.

  15. Movie Review World · February 1, 2014

    Nice Review and Its great to see this film getting so much love from the movie review community. Despite its downbeat and melancholic tone I found the Coen’s latest effort one of the most hauntingly beautiful films of the past year.

    • Three Rows Back · February 2, 2014

      Thanks buddy. “Hauntingly beautiful” is as great a description as you could give. I genuinely think this will be deemed a classic in years to come.

  16. Lights Camera Reaction · February 2, 2014

    Lovely review, and so detailed too. Glad you liked it, I finally saw it the other day. It’s absolutely remarkable, really loved it. I think the cat was a metaphor of Llewyn’s old partner, I think his name was Mike? Isaac was hauntingly brilliant. “There’s something both maddening and admirable about his bloody-mindedness.” completely agree with you there.

    • Three Rows Back · February 2, 2014

      Thanks so much. The cat as a metaphor for Mike is an interesting theory. What makes the Coens such enduring filmmakers are their ability to produce films that are open to so many interpretations. This was a wonderful film; glad you enjoyed it as much as I did.

  17. Nostra · February 16, 2014

    Interesting thought about it being purgatory, you could interpret it like that. Nice review man.

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s