Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Jeanine Serralles, Ethan Phillips, Robin Barrett.
This bittersweet and blackly funny film follows a week in the life of a down and out folk singer struggling to make his mark in the early 60s when folk was slowly taking over from jazz in the Greenwich Village coffee houses frequented by the intellectuals and college students. The film is loosely based on The Mayor Of MacDougal Street, the memoir of Dave Van Ronk, who was one of the founding figures of the great 60s folk revival.
Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac, from Drive, Balibo, etc) is a luckless, self-absorbed and self-sabotaging aspiring folk singer who tramples on nearly every significant relationship he has ever had. He is something of a loner, and since the suicide of his former singing partner he has tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a solo career. Davis can only find work as a session musician and performing in some of the coffee houses in Greenwich Village.
When we first meet Davis he finishes a song at the Gaslight Cafe, walks out into the back alley and is beaten by a stranger for heckling another performer. From that point the narrative takes an elliptical journey to show how Davis arrived at this predicament.
Homeless he drifts from one friend’s apartment to another, outstaying his welcome before moving on. He is estranged from his father and his disapproving sister (Jeanine Serralles). When staying at the apartment of some friends, the academic Gorfeins (played by Ethan Phillips and Robin Barrett) Davis finds himself lumbered with carrying around their ginger cat. Davis also embarks on a road journey to Chicago to try and establish himself, again with little success.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the latest film fron Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men, True Grit, etc), but in tone and droll humour this low key effort is more like their lesser known films like The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man. As with the latter the material is also suffused with a strong and distinctly Jewish streak of humour. The film and its central character also have vague echoes of Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown, which starred Sean Penn as a fictional guitarist, who was similarly irresponsible and flawed.
As usual the Coens have cast well and they draw strong performances from their cast. In particular, Isaac inhabits the character of Davis perfectly, and this is the best and most nuanced performance of his career. His performance is restrained and understated, and he somehow elicits sympathy for this flawed and essentially selfish and unlikeable character.
Carey Mulligan (reunited with Isaac following their work in Drive) is good as the bitter, vitriolic folk singer Jean, with whom Davis had a fling. She is pregnant and wants Davis to pay for her abortion. Justin Timberlake is given little to do as Jim, a fellow singer, but is convincing in his few scenes. And John Goodman is wonderful in his few scenes as Roland Turner, a cynical, drug addicted jazz musician who is dismissive of folk music. There is also a wonderful array of interesting peripheral characters, including Davis’ tight fisted manager and a cynical night club entrepreneur, and while they register strongly in their few scenes it is a pity we don’t get to spend more time in their company.
Inside Llewyn Davis is evocative of the cafe culture, the smoky basement clubs and the burgeoning folk music scene of New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 60s, when the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were starting to make their mark. There is a great soundtrack of folk songs written by T-Bone Burnett (who collaborated with the Coens on O Brother Where Art Thou?), including the Golden Globe nominated novelty song Please Mr Kennedy. Sung by the likes of Isaac, Mulligan and Timberlake themselves, the songs recall the likes of Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, and will appeal to fans of this musical genre. But somehow it doesn’t quite have the same exuberance of their work on O Brother, Where Art Thou? which had a far more bouncy musical score.
Bruno Delbonnel (A Very Long Engagement, Amelie, etc) takes over from the Coens’ regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, who was unavailable due to working on Skyfall, and he has shot the film in a suitably washed out palette and greyish hues. His evocative lensing effectively captures the darkened interiors of the small clubs and the snow covered streets scapes.
Inside Llewyn Davis is certainly evocative of a time and place, courtesy of the superb production design from Jess Gonchor, which lends authenticity to this period recreation. The film is full of some of the Coens’ quirky signature touches and stylistic flourishes. While it may not be their best film it is certainly winning quite a lot of accolades and love in the lead up to the big award ceremonies.