BFI London Film Festival 2013: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ a colorful, middle-tier period piece from the Coens


Inside Llewyn Davis

Written and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

USA, 2013

Poor Llewyn Davis is not at a good point in his life. In February of 1961, he is a struggling, bearded bohemian shivering through a frosty Greenwich Village, a folk musician seeking the next gig just to keep the wolf from the door. With few possessions other than the fraying clothes on his back and his trusty guitar, he relies on the charity of others to keep a temporary roof over his head, oscillating from staying with two wedded musical companions in the tight-knit folk scene, Jean (Carey Mulligan, deliciously spiteful) and Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake, polished) and the middle-class Gorfiens , the wealthy, perky parents of Llewyn’s musical partner, revealed to have committed suicide a few months earlier. Davis is a man scorned, sneering at others and certain of his superior musical skills. He’s not the most likable sort, as his futile attempts to escape the confines of his self-imposed cage make for a colourfully arranged period crooner.

Like A Serious Man, this film’s thrust is that of a man’s life deteriorating around him, the choke of failure closing in as his professional and private lives disintegrate in turbulent and anxious unison. Llewyn is, in some senses, deserving of his fate, sleeping with his friend’s wife, and treating the bereaved parents of his deceased partner with an arrogant righteousness. Inebriated, he declares himself  a musical superior to his contemporaries in an odious fashion; he’s a bit of a jerk, played with indomitable exasperation by Oscar Isaac, who is almost unrecognisable from his ex-con in Drive. It’s quite fun to focus on a character who is so listlessly unlikable; despite his foibles, his struggle to succeed draws you into his desperate orbit, as his various strategies to correct his life’s course are torpedoed by the indiscriminate vagaries of fate. The film embroiders Llewyn’s modest odyssey with musical asides in a fashion similar to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, not merely as window dressing but as punctuation points in the crucial strums of the narrative. With T-Bone Burnett as musical advisor, these cuts were sung and recorded live by the performers, and even the folk-music-averse may find themselves swaying with delight in the audience.


For a richly detailed New York movie, Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t afraid to step outside of the Big Apple, as an impeccably arranged jaunt to Chicago could stand on its own as a mesmerizingly constructed short film, with John Goodman in scenery-chewing mode as a shamanic New Orleans sorcerer complete with his Jack Kerouac alike vassal. This is the sort of cartoonish self-aware introduction that could destabilise the entire film yet somehow slips amorphously into its firmament, blending with the Coens’ impeccable taste for local colour and evocative production design.

In their middle years, Joel and Ethan Coen are also taking a certain glee in manipulating structure as there is one particular section of Inside Llewyn Davis that spins the film into immediate re-watch territory. Their usual metaphorically rich designs – the hats and haircuts, the warm interiors and pallid exteiors –have taken on a feline edge with the most mysterious emphasis on a domestic pet since Ripley went back for Jones in Alien. Inside Llewyn Davis is middle-tier Coen fare, which naturally still stands above the majority of other current films. This is a film that, like Llewyn’s future cult aficionado potential, seems destined to be one of the unsung champions of the Coen faithful, like The Man Who Wasn’t There or The Hudsucker Proxy; the chin-stroking and cigarette fuelled arguments will start to rage when Inside Llewyn Davis gets a release this Christmas.

— John McEntee

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