Inside Llewyn Davis
Directors Joel Coen and Ethan Coen Stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake USA/France 2013 Language English 1hr 45mins Colour
Splendid character study set in early 1960s bohemia from the Coen brothers
A few days in the life of folksinger Llewyn Davis in New York City, 1961. A few days that should be enough to extinguish any romanticism about the bohemian life, about the freedom from commitments of the chronic couch surfer, the refusal to be tied down being in practice the wearying obligation every other night to find some friend who you haven’t hit up for a favour recently.
And Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a bad guest, a terrible guest. Maybe because he is so tired, as he says, or maybe because he is, as his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) says, a dick and an asshole, Llewyn consistently pisses on the laws of hospitality. Pretty much everything wrong you could do to people who have taken you in, fed you, given you endless never-to-be-repaid loans, he does. And yet they still try, still they forgive.
Why? Because Llewyn has his charms, because he is (somewhere underneath it all) obviously hurting, and not least, because he’s a good singer. That’s one of the big choices that the Coens have made here – Llewyn’s professional struggles are not because he’s deluded about his talent. As with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens are serious about the music – you don’t get bits of songs to illustrate the scene, you get them the whole way through. And the songs, the serious folk songs (all stuff that would have been around at the time) and a novelty possible hit one of them comes up with (written for the film), are all excellent.
Llewyn is heading for trouble in other ways, whether you are mystically inclined – almost every opportunity to generate good karma is spurned – or not – every time he has to make a small decision that might affect his future in a bigger way, he seems to get it wrong.
If that seems an awful of talking about one character, well, that’s the way the film works. I don’t think we ever leave Llewyn’s side – if he’s not in shot, he’s still in the room (or, for a long stretch of the film, in the car). And as such, the film rests substantially on the shoulders of previously none-too-famous Oscar Isaac*, and he’s just terrific, making sure that Llewyn is compellingly screwed-up rather than unbearable. The rest of the cast do a fine job, too – Mulligan, Justin Timberlake (oddly sounding a bit like Joe Pernice when singing folk songs) as Jim, her partner on and off stage, and a whole bunch of superb Coens minor characters (I loved the secretary at Llewyn’s record company, as played by Sylvia Kauders). Not to mention the cat.
As films made by Joel and Ethan Coen go, Inside Llewyn Davis is fairly straight. It’s very funny in places, some (OK, most) of the characters are indeed fairly eccentric, but compared to say, O Brother or Burn After Reading, this is restrained stuff. That’s not a value judgement – I know there are people who hate what they regard as the excesses, the overstylisation of some of the Coens’ movies, but I’m not one of them. That said, the only weakness of this film is too much of one of their staples, the menacing John Goodman bit. Here it goes on far too long, for no obvious reason other than it’s John Goodman and they love him.
That aside, Inside Llewyn Davis is pretty much immaculate – perfectly cast, perfectly timed, full of great lines, brilliantly shot (by Bruno Delbonnel) to make New York in 1961 look exactly how you’d imagine it from old record sleeves, and beautifully sung. I think it’s the best film the Coens have made since, oh, at least The Man Who Wasn’t There**, and I can’t wait to watch it again.
*As far as I can gather, he’s basically best known for not being David Krumholtz.
**There’s the Oscar voters’ view that puts Fargo and No Country For Old Men far above the rest of the Coens’ work. I like both those films, but neither would be in my favourite five of their movies.
I saw Inside Llewyn Davis at the 2013 London Film Festival