Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen brothers show us once again why they are among the very best filmmakers of our time. Inside Llewyn Davis is not a typical Coen film, with only a hint of the Coen quirkiness. Instead, we are treated to a depressing drama about a struggling New York City musician in 1961 whose life is going around in circles.

Oscar Isaac is amazing as the lost, tired, lonely and desperately unhappy Llewyn Davis, whose inability to make a decent income as a folk singer forces him to sleep on the couches of friends. They always let him in, though it’s clear Davis is not the most likable guy to have around.

There are hints that Davis was a different man before his partner left him. Without his partner, Davis no longer knows where he’s going. There are allusions to Homer’s Odyssey (though not as overt as they were in the Coens’ O Bother, Where Art Thou). Davis is on a journey and unable to find his way home (or, I would say, even unable to know where home is).

Inside Llewyn Davis features a couple of fairly small but spot-on performances from Carey Mulligan and John Goodman, flawless writing and direction from the Coen brothers and outstanding cinematography. I’m not a fan of desaturated cinematography, but here it perfectly evokes not only the mood of the film (bleak, grey) but also the time (winter, 1961) and place. For 105 minutes, I was in New York City and Chicago (and the highway in between) in 1961. 

Inside Llewyn Davis has a tired, melancholy and unsentimental feel that mirrors the life of its unlikable protagonist, though there is an underlying touch of humour. The bleakness makes it harder to enjoy the film, but it does make feel like you are watching a work of great cinematic art. Indeed, the film is so well-made, it is almost impossible to give it less than ****, regardless of whether it makes my top ten films of the year (which is not based on how good a film is, but on how much I enjoyed it). 

And then of course there’s the cat(s). 

So Inside Llewyn Davis gets **** even though I haven’t figured out how much I like the film. My mug is up.


  1. Well, first of all, I have to take great issue with your association of bleakness with "great cinematic art" - what utter nonsense. If bleakness is associated with "art" then to hell with art. Fortunately, I found this to be on the human side of bleakness. I appreciated the craft and the music immediately, but I didn't appreciate the story until I read a review that helped put it in perspective as a story of the pain of a folk singer trying to make it just before (signalled by the ending) the season when culture was really ready for it. The themes of finding his way home and the cat, as you suggest, pointed toward more - though these didn't quite come together well for me. I think I'll leave it at *** with a hesitant mug up.

  2. As my review suggests, I struggled to like this film as much as I thought it deserved. And apparently I also struggled to communicate why I thought it was such a well-made film even as I struggled to enjoy it. I think if I could explain to you what I meant with the comment about bleakness and art, you would not be that opposed to it. I was not associating bleakness with art. I was associating the brilliant way the Coen brothers portrayed the bleakness in this particular film with art. Does that make more sense? Anyway, I understand your comments. In responding to a question at a film workshop I did a week ago, it was clear to me that my views on this film are bizarrely mixed, unlike my views on Noah, for example. See upcoming review.

  3. Yes, it does make more sense and forgive my overstated outburst. As you can see I have strong feelings about the tendency for arthouse cinema to be bleak - often I think bleakness is misused as a shortcut to "artistic" style. (We recently watched Mike Leigh's All or Nothing and the bleakness nearly killed us.) However, I did think you communicated well what was done with artful quality in this film, and I agree. And, as I've chatted about this film with a few others, I've come to appreciate it more.