Inside Llewyn Davis


Release: Friday, December 6, 2013


“A folk singer with a cat. Is that part of your act? Every time you hit a C-major, does he puke a hairball?”

For whatever it’s worth, this line delivered by John Goodman’s character was intended to hurt Llewyn Davis’ feelings, not the cat’s. I suppose if the poor feline had to audition for its (substantial) role as Llewyn’s traveling pants, it probably managed to develop a thick skin (fur?) and wasn’t quite as sensitive as all the other Garfield-looking actors who didn’t get the part.

If that’s not a strange enough introduction to throw you completely off-balance, then you definitely need to see this film. Somehow the intro will seem more fitting and less like a rambling filler paragraph. The Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski) step forward into the limelight once again with a darkly comical week-in-the-life of a permanently embittered yet talented musician who constantly fumbled in his attempts to make something of himself against the backdrop of the folk music scene in 1960s New York City. If Greenwich Village (largely a residential borough of west Lower Manhattan) was the rose garden in which young artists blossomed, Llewyn would be the thorn of thorns growing on the tallest rose stem. Antisocial and abrasive, the character is not the kind one would immediately associate with potentially award-winning storytelling.

Ordinarily that presumption — that miserable characters tend to make for bad times at the movies — is a good one to keep in the back pocket; why pay money for an experience that’s going to ultimately irritate or rub you the wrong way? While that reservation is still understandable here, writing off the Coens’ latest gem as not a good film because the main character doesn’t appeal would be a mistake.

For starters, missing this film means missing out on Oscar Isaac’s sharpest performance to date, and it also means missing a chance to see/hear Justin Timberlake do some real singing. (For the readers who are choosing to stay through this review even after I have mentioned that name, I thank you kindly. And yes, I do accept tips.) In fact, one of the most compelling reasons to see this film is for the music. That the performers have a chance to incorporate their musical inclinations is surprisingly rewarding; Isaac’s voice is incredible. Timberlake is quite tolerable since his contributions are minimal, yet they endure as much as Isaac’s mopey face; and the film serves as a great showcase for Carey Mulligan’s beautiful voice as well.

However great the many musical imbuements are (and they really are something), all they do is factor into the story — a story of a struggling musician trying to be noticed in a world filled with competing interests and, perhaps, more favorable personalities. These interludes demonstrate these people at their best. When the spotlight turns off of them (particularly Llewyn) though, the Coens’ carefully constructed tone and mood — even the cityscape — seems that much darker.

Isaac portrays a character loosely based on the music and experiences of folk singer/songwriter Dave Van Ronk. Indeed, there was no such folk singer named Llewyn Davis — a reality that is difficult to accept considering the power of Isaac’s essence. Instead, the Coen brothers drafted up a period piece so rich in detail they created real, breathing human beings; even fictitious acts like Davis, like Al Cody (Adam Driver), like duos such as Jim (Timberlake) and Jean (Mulligan) (who actually were based on the real-life duo of Jim Glover and Jean Ray) are byproducts of a fully-realized script that epitomizes one particular point in music history.

Such is the value of the ticket into this particular Coen production: the sense of time and place. Steeped in a little corner of America that was brimming with talent in a much-overlooked genre, Inside Llewyn Davis transports the viewer to what’s ostensibly the 60s; so much so, that the story presented comes in second to the ambience. Llewyn was once part of a duo himself, but after his friend and fellow songwriter decided to commit suicide, he has been left in an aching hollow, a dark melancholy from which he seemingly cannot awaken. His last album (which he recorded with his late friend) hasn’t sold well at all, rendering him completely broke. So he bounces from couch to couch, finding increasingly desperate ways of securing the next gig that may or may not tide him over for awhile. Llewyn doesn’t so much live as much as he exists.

On top of his real-world issues, Llewyn has a myriad of ideological problems that don’t seem to help his cause. He can’t fathom why audiences are taking to other acts more than his own; why does everything he touch seemingly fall to pieces? His jealousy of Jim and Jean might be understandable on a more personal level, and yet, for him, it’s so much more. Llewyn doesn’t like people, clearly. Painfully ironically, he has plenty of kind-hearted “friends” and acquaintances who have been trying to help him out and get him off of his feet. (Hey, at least there’s the cat. . . .he won’t help to pay rent or whatever, but, meow. . .)

The directorial duo of brothers weave a slight, if daydreaming, narrative in between rousing on-screen performances and tremendous stage presences. It’s difficult to believe Isaac and Mulligan — and, yes. . .okay, Timberlake, get in here too — are this talented, musically as well as visually. We don’t see Llewyn do much other than mope around between apartments he’s staying in, smoke cigarettes and complain; but we do meet a full cast of characters who do more than their fair share of bringing this story to life. John Goodman adds some color (as per usual) as Roland Turner, a jazz musician Llewyn meets on the road who might be more obnoxious than he is; Garrett Hedlund makes a brief appearance as Turner’s driver, cigarette un-sharing, beat-poet Johnny Five; and F. Murray Abraham plays up the big whig (or as big as they get at this point) Bud Grossman, a potential label representative Llewyn has been eyeing in Chicago, his possible ticket for getting out of all of this mess.

The Coens won’t make it easy on the viewer (after all, they did hire Justin Timberlake. . . but in all honesty, he’s nothing to worry about here). Inside Llewyn Davis suffers from a minor case of anti-hero. However, in this case, the viewer must be able to distinguish between bad person and great performance. Isaac turns in an affecting performance; arguably one of the more memorable of 2013. Capturing the drama and the anxieties of working in this kind of market during this time in this place is a task left up to Joel and Ethan Coen. And they deliver, as only they can.


4-0Recommendation: Inside Llewyn Davis may very well appeal to far more fans of Coens’ previous work than to newcomers, but it should also have a strong sway with anyone who loves good music. Packed full of great little songs, a few of which are sung to perfection by the cast, the film is a real joy to watch unfold, despite it’s rough-around-the-edges subject and the circumstances surrounding him/it. The performances are stellar, and, unless the Oscars are completely and unabashedly fixed (maybe they are), they should receive at least some sort of recognition come February.

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

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37 thoughts on “Inside Llewyn Davis

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  5. I saw this last week and know I should review it but have NO clue what to say. I liked it. Didn’t love it. I don’t know… But, I’ve never been a big Coen Brothers fan. Great review! 🙂


    • hehe I run into those problems myself and it’s really hard to come up with something wehen you’re on the fence about what you just experienced. I’m just now sort of getting into the Coen brother’s filmography and i must say I dig them quite a lot. But i can see where they don’t win everyone over equally.


  6. Fine work as always sir. I’ve not managed to catch this yet but I reckon it’s the only film left that could possibly be my favourite of year. I think I’ve found it in “Her” but this still has a chance.


    • Thanks Mark!! Man, that’s stiff competition between this and Her. Both totally different films/subject matters, but boy are they similar in quality levels. I might like Her more, but this is right behind it. Oscar Isaac is extraordinary.


  7. Meh. I liked the music. I have the CD in fact, but the main character was such a jerk. It was just ok. The fact that it only got 2 nominations (Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing) kind of validated my lack of enthusiasm for this.

    I enjoyed your review more. 🙂


  8. Great review Tom! I’m not as fond of this film as you but I LOVE Oscar Isaac’s performance here. And the songs are great, esp Isaac’s solo songs, he’s got such a nice voice!


    • Understandable Ruth. It’s a relatively cold film, and several characters (apart from Llewyn) are cast into unfavorable light as well (as I saw it). Carey Mulligan was very vicious in her moments, but I guess Llewyn deserved it! I am eagerly awaiting my next Coen brothers experience, I have a lot of work ahead of me.


  9. Nice review Tom. Now we’re at that point where the Coens can practically do anything they possibly want with their careers, and it most likely won’t disappoint.


  10. Oscar for Oscar!! This is my #1 movie of 2013. So glad you loved it. I agree too that so many of the renditions of the songs are some of the best ever.


    • Absolutely. I was very surprised by how beautiful Timberlake, Mulligan and. . . that other. . .guy. . .sounded together as a trio. Simply beautiful.

      And now that the Oscar noms are in, what a disappointment THAT is, no Oscar for Oscar!!? The hell. . .?


    • Cheers man, the longer you have to hold out the sweeter the reward is what I always say. It’ll be worth the long wait for this one.


    • Thanks so much dude, it took me a little bit to get to this one and I honestly had some reservations going in to it, but I’m glad for the experience. Oscar Isaac hopefully will be getting some attention from Old Oscar soon.


  11. Very nice! Obviously we agree on this one. The Coens manage to create a sharply unique picture while still making it undoubtedly a Coen brothers film. And it really sticks with you.


    • Most excellent. And good point, this one is going to linger likely for awhile. A lot of the songs certainly are, and I don’t consider myself the biggest country/folk/blues/bluegrass kind of listener. Not against the genres, but they just dont’ call my name all that often. The tracks used herein were beautiful exceptions.


    • Many thanks, Miss Zoe! Had a great time with this one, and if you’re a fan of movies with quality soundtracks, this one is not one to miss. Of course, it’s folk music. . .


      • 100% they did. And that’s good to be cautious that way because if Inside Llewyn Davis was handled by anyone other than the Coens, i’m pretty sure this could have been unwatchable. At the very least, highly unpleasant. But it’s not. 🙂


  12. Great review, Tom.

    And I quite agree. (Except with all the Timberlake hate. I don’t like his music and I’m not convinced he’s a leading man, but he is comedic gold.) Anyway, your thoughts on Llewyn and this movie . . . I share them. It is very good, no matter Llewyn’s lack of charisma.


    • Oh I just can’t stand Timberlake. haha He’s so not my cup of tea. Though this might be the first time he’s shown me he can do some actual acting instead of coasting beyond his post NSYNC fame or what-the-hell-ever. haha

      Glad we agree on the film, though. That would be much more traumatic if we didn’t! 😉


      • Just joining the comment about Timberlake. I prefer him in comedies, but yeah generally I’m not too keen on that guy. He was terrible as a dramatic/action leading man, i.e. In Time.


      • I’m still awaiting the role he can make me even smile, honestly. Lol I don’t know why I have so much against the guy. It’s not like I’ve ever met him. . .or maybe I have, just in a previous life or something. . .


    • I actually have forgotten he was in that one. That might be because I have yet to see that film. Whoops. . .


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