The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Inside Llewyn Davis

Reviewed by Matt Denny.

Director Joel & Ethan Coen
Length 105 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating *********-
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 5

Photo from the article

Printer friendly format [Normal view]

It is the winter of 1961, and struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) finds himself on the wrong end of a beating behind the Gaslight Café. This is but one of a series of unfortunate events that befall Llewyn on his odyssey through the streets, sofas, and floors of Greenwich Village.

Llewyn Davis looks like he’s walked straight off the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, except there is no Suze Rotolo accompanying him, only a runaway cat. The Coen Brothers excel at losers, and Llewyn Davis is perhaps a pretender to Barton Fink’s throne as the Coen’s arch loser. Like Barton, Llewyn is a struggling artist in love with the idea of being a struggling artist. He is both more and less likeable than Barton Fink. Llewyn’s performance of authenticity and suffering is more authentic and more pitiable, and yet (not to put too fine a point on it) Llewyn’s a bit of an arsehole.

Llewyn pictures himself as a victim of his own integrity, unwilling to sell out and yet in desperate need of money. He doesn’t even have a winter coat. For every offer of charity that we see Llewyn push away, there are a dozen scenes when we see him leeching all the goodness out of a relationship, souring every friendship. Often Llewyn comes across as a truly despicable character. But then he starts singing.

Once Llewyn starts to sing, it’s a lot easier to like him, even to forgive him a little. This is not only because Isaacs’ performance cuts right to the heart of these moments, but also because Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t just a film with music in it, it’s a full-blown musical. The title isn’t just a riff on sixties folk-album Inside Dave Van Ronk, but an indication of how the performances function in the film - as access to Llewyn’s interiority. It’s a superb use of folk music, using the old songs to say something about a current, personal pain.

If sadly overlooked by the Academy for a Best Picture nomination, Inside Llewyn Davis has been deservedly recognised for Bruno Delbonnel’s sterling cinematography. The film is bathed in a truly beautiful winter light, and the smoky interiors of the Greenwich cafés are wonderfully evocative. At the same time there is a harsh edge to the images, with the biting cold of the New York winter almost tangible. The dialogue is, as one familiar with Coens might expect, also quite wonderful. Carey Mulligan’s Jean is given the choicest lines, but several members of the supporting cast have perhaps some of the most Coenesque dialogue they have yet written. And of course there’s the cat, surely one of the most expressive animal actors to have a graced the screen.

Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coens' most beautiful looking film since Miller’s Crossing, and Llewyn perhaps their best loser-hero, if far from their most loveable.

This review was published on January 31, 2014.