Inside Llewyn Davis, film review: 'One of the Coen brothers' most idiosyncratic movies'

4.00

A very intimate portrait of a singer who is going absolutely nowhere

Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen brothers’ richest and most idiosyncratic films, a tragicomic epic about a Greenwich village folk singer down on his luck. The film manages the unlikely feat of staying respectful toward the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s while being gently satirical about folk subculture in general.

The plotting seems whimsical – much of the drama hinges on a missing cat – and yet the storytelling has a deep melancholic undertow. The period detail is meticulous (the film-makers go to great lengths to get everything from the haircuts and beards to the polar necks and the duffel coats just right) but the themes are universal. In their eccentric fashion, the Coens are dealing with artistic ambition, compromise and despair.

If Homer’s Odyssey was the starting point for the Coens’ earlier feature O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), James Joyce’s Ulysses is a clear inspiration here. Llewyn Davis (played in engagingly forlorn and comic fashion by Oscar Isaac) is a Leopold Bloom-like wanderer. He locks himself out of an apartment early on and is left to roam the city.

Right at the outset, the Coens throw in a scene in which Llewyn is beaten up by a stranger in a dark hat outside a folk club. The reason for this assault only becomes apparent toward the end of the film but it signals just how hapless their lead character is.

Llewyn is so poor he doesn’t even have a winter overcoat. His elderly agent is exasperated by him. His fellow folk singer Jean Berkey (a foul-mouthed Carey Mulligan), who goes out with his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), is furious because she is pregnant and thinks he might be the father. “Everything you touch turns to shit, like King Midas’s idiot brother,” she screeches at him. It seems a fair enough assessment, given that bad luck dogs him. He used to sing with a partner, Mike, who killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

Inside Llewyn Davis star Carey Mulligan keen for Downton Abbey role

One reason that the film has been largely overlooked in this year’s Oscar nominations is surely that its storyline is so unconventional. It takes place over a period of roughly a week. Llewyn Davis (reportedly based on the real-life folk singer Dave Van Ronk) spends most of that time going around in circles. As Jean points out, “the same shit” keeps happening to him.

Llewyn has a certain amount of talent... but probably not enough. He keeps on hustling and has the initiative to eke out a little money from a recording session. In one of the film’s stranger interludes, he even travels to Chicago to meet a legendary producer, Bud Grossman (F Murray Abraham), who he hopes will give him a break. This is a film about talent drifting off into mediocrity and dashed hopes. Llewyn’s perseverance is his most heroic quality but there is no sense that it will ever get him very far. The humiliations mount.

He is given a vision of what his future might hold when he drives across country with a thoroughly obnoxious, cane-wielding, Dr John-like musician (John Goodman), who despises him. “Folk singer with a cat. Are you queer?” Goodman sneers. “In jazz, you know, we play all the notes – 12 notes on the scale, dip shit, not three chords on a ukulele.”

The cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, whose previous credits include Amélie and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, shoots early 1960s New York in crisp, desaturated fashion. The film is set in the dead of winter. There are many humorous moments but the tone is too bleak for this ever simply to seem like comedy. The Coens are dealing with suicide, abortion, and their lead character’s ongoing professional failure. The film would seem very dark indeed if it wasn’t for Isaac’s performance. For all his vanity and irresponsibility, Isaac’s Llewyn retains a child-like innocence – and he does at least try to find the missing cat.

There are frequent close-ups of Llewyn,  sitting on a subway train or in a car in which he has been abandoned without the keys or even in a toilet cubicle, looking utterly bewildered at the course his life has taken. The Coens don’t skimp on making him suffer. This is an “inside” view of Llewyn and that means we are privy to every minor indignity he suffers. He is the type of character whose socks get soaked in the snow; who will be moved along by a cop if he tries to rest in a railway station; and who will be treated badly by waitresses in a diner where he has gone for coffee. Even his jokes fall flat.

The film is set on the cusp of a musical revolution, one that we can only guess will make Llewyn seem yet less relevant. It’s the start of the 1960s. Bob Dylan (spotted briefly in the final reel) is about to transform folk music. In the new order, there will be little demand for bearded folk singers with acoustic guitars singing songs that – as Llewyn himself quips – are “never new and never get old”.

A sentimental view is that this is the Coens’ tribute to the small-timers who were an essential part of the 1960s music scene and Llewyn is best viewed as an unsung hero. The folk music itself, overseen by their regular collaborator T Bone Burnett, is performed beautifully. However, this is also a chronicle of failure – a very intimate portrait of a singer who is going absolutely nowhere.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker