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Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Robbie says that whilst Inside Llewyn Davis won’t be for everyone, it’s essential viewing for a Coen Brothers devotee


The last few years have been some of the most successful for the Coen Brothers, critically speaking at least. Oscar victory for No Country For Old Men in 2007 has set a high bar for their subsequent work, which has been satisfied for fans of the dynamic duo. Recent years has also seen the Coens alternate between the bigger budget Westerns – True Grit in 2010 – and their more personal projects like A Serious Man.  

    Inside Llewyn Davis would most certainly fall into the latter category, and how much you enjoy this will be determined by how much you really love the Coen Brothers – because this is them at their purest. Set in the harsh winter of 1961, during the folk scene in Greenwich Village, New York, the film follows the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) through a succession of disappointments as he tries to make it in the industry. The repeated rejection and berating of Llewyn from everybody from his sister to his fellow folk singer, Jean (Carey Mulligan), makes for some comical moments, but an ultimately depressing experience.

The only respite either the audience or Llewyn gets is when he is able to sing. Isaac has a lovely soulful quality to his voice, which is well suited to the melancholy of the music which drives the film. This melancholy runs deep throughout the film, and the Coens cynicism becomes almost overwhelming during Llewyn ill-fated trip to Chicago, with the obnoxious Roland Turner (John Goodman).

How much time you’re willing to suffer Inside Llewyn Davis largely depends on your personal disposition to the man himself and his music, and how much of the Coens’ pessimistic view on his pursuit for artistic liberation you find endearing or wearing. Happily, the Coens unique comic sensibility is not in short supply, even if it’s more weighted in the film’s first half. Having inadvertently locked himself out of a friend’s apartment with their ginger cat, Llewyn spends the first half of the film with his new feline friend under his arm as he traipses around New York City looking for somewhere to stay. These scenes are sweet and funny and so quintessentially ‘Coen Brothers’, you can’t help but smile.

The comedy and tragedy of Inside Llewyn Davis are captured wonderfully by a breakout performance from Oscar Isaac (sadly overlooked at this year’s Oscars), who never allows Llewyn to become pitiful, but conveys the crushing disappointments which he endures quietly and with humour. The film begins and ends with Llewyn playing at the same bar, to the same crowd with the same songs. As he exits the bar, to be confronted by the angered husband of a performer he’d heckled the night before, a young Bob Dylan takes to the stage to perform. A pertinent reminder that whether you succeed or fail, we all start in the same place.