Film Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

by Polly Hember



Inside Llewyn Davis follows a struggling folk singer drift from sofa to sofa, from gig to gig, city to city in 1961. Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis with a paradoxical charisma that alienates his audience, yet simultaneously engages them in the cold, hard struggle that folk musicians faced in the dingy back streets of Greenwich Village. The Coen brothers’ 2013 film delivered a frosty and bleak picture of folk before Bob Dylan, and was celebrated at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, winning the Grand Prix, and saw Isaac later nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in 2014. However, despite the awards and nominations, it received a lukewarm public reception. In true Coen-style, this is a fantastic film that is strangely unwatchable, and leaves the viewer empty and exhausted. Isaac is brilliant as Davis, yet plays a character that is fundamentally unlikable. This begs the question; can you have a successful film about an unsuccessful Beatnik-bearded failure?


The inspiration alledgedly came from Dave Van Ronk's autobiography, and you can see multiple parallels between Davis and Van Ronk throughout.The film follows singer-songwriter Davis perusing a solo career, after the suicide of his former singing partner. He is constantly on the road, taken in by a motely group of academics and fellow musicians Jim and Jean (played by an optimistic Justin Timberlake and a scorned Carey Mulligan). Opening with Davis getting pummelled in an alley way behind a club, setting the tone for the brutal rejection that Davis experiences throughout the film. The final reel cyclically plods back to this moment, and ends with a once-again beaten Davis as notes of Dylan float out of the gig behind him. This cyclical narrative resists the resolution and catharsis of traditional cinema, just as Davis resists the instant gratification of sugary sweet, simple pop and instead miserably safeguards the authentic folk tradition. There is always a feeling of being ever so slightly off the beat, in the wrong place with Davis: he is on the outskirts while Dylan’s music is taking off in the warmth of the smoky club behind him.

The muted tones of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel emphasise the tired exhaustion as the film drives on with little or no direction. Viewers automatically latch on to tantalizing symbols and motifs that the Coen brothers insert into the challenging narrative; a ginger cat scurries in and out of frame. As viewers, we urge Davis to show some affection to the little cat, even if he will not show any to Jean, who angrily confronts him for their adulterous acts, demanding money that Davis does not possess in order to pay for an abortion. We desperately want to like the grouchy and gruff Davis, who remains uncaring and apathetic to the end. The cat runs loose, elusively evading capture – and transpires to be not the same cat that Davis accidentally sets free, but in fact multiple cats.​

Chasing a romanticised tale of success, chasing the ginger feline tail of these symbolic cats, and ultimately chasing his own tail; this is a story that circles around itself and all of its counterparts, spiralling in passivity or bad decisions. Walking past a video store, Davis stands and watches a few chance seconds of the childhood film Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, which almost spitefully emphasises the inherent lack of direction that both Davis and this film grapples with. The Disney classic follows the story of three pets, making their way home across America to their owners, guided by their hearts and instincts, powered by their love and desire to return home. Davis has no stable home, his instincts tell him not to collaborate with Jim on cheesy pop track that later becomes incredibly successful. We catch glimpses “inside Llewyn Davis” through soulful, captivating close-ups of his songs, all performed live by Isaac himself. ‘Never Had’ and ‘Hang me, Oh Hang Me’ are authentic, touching and mesmerising as Isaac conveys the compelling heart of a deeply unsympathetic and thorny man. He comments: ‘Llewyn is such an internal guy […] That was the hardest thing to portray. He is an island, shut off from everyone else’. There is no overhead narration or prolonged monologues to guide us through the deep and sticky quagmires of Inside Llewyn Davis, but Isaac succeeds in allowing us chance glimpses into the struggling musician’s life.​

Oscarr Isaac performing 'Fare Thee Well'.

Likewise, the Coen brothers succeed in offering a fragmented feeling of how tough the music industry was and is. The evasion of conventional closure mirrors the struggle that authentic folk faced and deals with now in our contemporary culture, filled with instant hits from Zayn Malik and Justin Bieber that finds it hard to face the grit and rejection that is embedded in individual and authentic song writing. This a reality that is difficult to face, and therefore difficult to watch.​

However, On the Beat urges you to endure the uncomfortable in order to enjoy this brilliant and challenging film. The Coens offer a beautifully shot and complex narrative.  It is carried forth by Isaac’s brilliantly charismatic but fundamentally alienating portrayal of Davis, a man on a Homeratic Odyssey, a voyage in the dark that has no destination. Instead, it pushes forward in a whirlpool of disappointment and rejection. Prepare yourself for the ever so slightly numbing emptiness that can accompany the grit of authentic innovation.

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Click on the links to find out more about the history of folk music and watch the trailer! 

On the Beat 2018   |    Online Culture Magazine    |