Directed by: Joel & Ethan Coen
R. 105 mins
An atmospheric portrait of male anxieties and failure, Inside Llewyn Davis explores the tremendous lows and all-too-brief highs that make the life of a musician so unique.
Written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, the film tracks a week in life of Llewyn Davis, a talented folk singer struggling to survive in 60s-era Greenwich Village. With hardly appropriate attire for the cold New York winter and barely a penny to his name, Llewyn surfs from couch to couch, desperately chasing a dream that seems impossibly out of reach. True to Coen form, Llewyn isn’t the most likeable of protagonists and much of the troubles he must overcome are of his own careless doing. There is a lingering coldness throughout the film, and not just because of the weather; Unlike some of the other quirky characters in the Coen oeuvre, the brooding Llewyn is really quite difficult to get behind, but his talent is undeniable and that’s probably why audiences have found this to be such an intriguing film. With a typically clever screenplay, a beautiful soundtrack and a convincing performance from Oscar Isaac (Drive, Sucker Punch, Robin Hood) as the titular character, this is an irritating, yet curiously irresistible film.
Floating from one gig to the next, we learn that Llewyn was once part of a duo, Timkin and Davis, which was suddenly no more after Timkin’s suicide. Miserable and frustrated, Llewyn treats the few friends he has in an ungrateful manner and doesn’t seem to possess any sort of remorse for his actions or feel much of anything until his friend Jane (Carey Mulligan) reveals that she may be pregnant with his child, which leads to an even more surprising revelation later in the film. Underneath Jean’s frequent expletives and criticisms, there’s a sense that she does care for Llewyn, but is so frustrated by his directionless lifestyle that she cannot keep supporting someone who doesn’t seem to respect her, or even himself. Llewyn finds it difficult to blend in with this new crowd of folk singers (Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver) who sing songs about Kennedy and don’t take their work as *seriously* as Llewyn does. It’s clear that Llewyn is ahead of his time and is under appreciated by those in the industry who can make or break him, but there are so many ideas at play that it’s hard to see where the story is going from there. Llewyn’s purist sensibilities have doomed him to this endless series of roadblocks and the whole film feels like the beginning of a story as opposed to really seeing the whole journey through to the end. With some memorable moments shared by Llewyn and a lost cat, followed by the arrival of Coen-brothers staple, John Goodman – as a heroin-addicted jazz musician, no less – the film hits some interesting high points using the darkly comic stylings the characterize much of the Coen’s work. But at the centre of it all we are still left with an unlikable person who’s struggles are nearly impossible to sympathize with. We want him to succeed, if only to bring more purpose to all the let-downs, but the negativity that surrounds Llewyn and just about everyone he encounters is a quirky element that is humorous at first, but soon grows tiresome.
To the film’s credit, it is a unique experience and will probably please most fans of the Coen brother’s work, but this is a story with an anti-hero that audiences will either love, or hate. Skillfully acted by the entire cast and shot with Bruno Delbonnel’s unforgettably airy cinematography, there is a lot to like about this film. Even if the failures on display prove slightly insubstantial, Inside Llewyn Davis is another strange success for the Coen brothers.