Mr East Goes To The Movies 2014: Inside Llewyn Davis

by George_East on February 21, 2014

The Coen Brothers used to be the kings of cult indie quirk, with films like Miller’s Crossing, Fargo and The Big Lebowski (a crown that I think has now passed to Wes Anderson), they have over the course of the last few years, since 2007’s modern western, No Country For Old Men developed a more serious side, though without losing their distinctive dry sense of humour.

Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, a tale of the aspiring folk singer of the title, set in early 1960s Greenwich Village, has a similar feel to it to 2009’s A Serious Man, which also had a period setting and a distinctively Jewish milieu.   It is though I think a better film than that – I never quite understood why it was critically raved as much as it was.

At its centre Inside Llewyn Davis has a fantastic performance from Oscar Isaac in the title role, who is on screen for the pretty much the entirety of its 104 minute running time.   The film centres on the week in Davis’ life when he realises that the dream of making a living from folk singing, just isn’t going to happen for him.  It is a gently and blackly comic tale of the American dream not working out.  

However, unlike many other treatments of this subject, particularly in American films, it is pretty clear that Davis deserves to fail.   This is not a tale of thwarted ambition or wasted talent. His material is not bad by any stretch of the imagination, he’s got a good voice and folk style, but as Chicago impresario will tell Davis after he treks there from New York to see him, there just isn’t a market for it.   He is not interesting enough, just one among many doing something that it is the latest trend.  A point brought out in the final scene in the film, as Davis finishes playing his last gig at the folk club, he is followed by another young singer songwriter, Bob Dylan, who can be seen and then heard in the back ground as Davis leaves the club. Isaac is perfect in the role, capturing Davis’ narcissistic dislikability superbly. 

Some of the key supporting roles are also wonderfully realised. Carey Mulligan is good in a somewhat limited role as Davis’ best friend’s girlfriend, Jean, he has got pregnant and who he needs to find money to pay for an abortion – something we learn has happened before.   Justin Timberlake is excellent as the geeky boyfriend of Jean, Jim, who is naïve and on his way to a huge novelty hit, ‘Please Mr Kennedy’

The film is also beautifully art designed.  The streets of New York look like folk album covers and the colours are so bled out that it feels like it is almost black and white, reflecting Davis’ increasingly despondent mood – homeless, cashless and virtually friendless, as he does the best to alienate everyone he meets.   There is also that sense of when things aren’t going right, everything Davis touches feels as if it is going wrong.  He has a child who he doesn’t know about until told by the abortion doctor (the first abortion didn’t happen), can’t even go back to his father’s profession of the merchant marine, as he cannot afford his union dues and when he scrapes them together finds out that his sister has thrown out his qualifications which enable him to go to sea.

It is then a good film, full of minor delights and with much to commend it.  However, unlike their last film, the wonderful remake of True Grit, which achieved that very rare thing of being superior to the original, Inside Llewyn Davis feels a little dramatically flat.  This may be a consequence of the fact that Davis himself is not particularly sympathetic and you do not feel particularly engaged with whether he succeeds or fails.  

The film also suffers from a misfire of a diversion of a drive to Chicago involving a junkie jazz musician, Roland Turner (played by Coen regular John Goodman) and his driver, Johnny Five (a James Dean like Garrett Hedlund).   Goodman plays Turner as pure caricature, which would have been more in place in one of the early Coen Brothers films (see his role in Barton Fink) than here.  Hedlund is barely in it at all, and feels like his role ended mostly on the cutting room floor.

This is then, I think, a second division Coen Brothers film – up there with the likes of The Man Who Wasn’t There or Raising Arizona, rather than the best of their work.  However, second division Coen Brothers is still better than the first division work of most current American directors and Inside Llewyn Davis is far superior to most Hollywood films out there.   It is undoubtedly worth seeing for Isaac’s performance alone.

7/10

 

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