VOD film review: Inside Llewyn Davis
Ivan Radford | On 21, May 2014
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake
Watch Inside LLewyn Davis online in the UK: Amazon Prime / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store
“If it’s never new and it doesn’t get old, it’s a folk song.”
That’s Llewyn Davis (Isaac), an amazing guitarist and a fuck-up of a human being. We follow Llewyn as he strums his way through life a bar at a time, getting beaten up in alleys and surfing the sofas of people who don’t like him very much. “It’s what you do,” taunts an angry stranger as he kicks him in the stomach. The one couple that actually like him leave him alone with their cat. He promptly loses it. His response? He runs to another sofa, belonging to old friend Jim (Timberlake) and his partner, Joan (Mulligan). Llewyn being Llewyn, he’s already slept with her behind Jim’s back.
“Everything you touch turns to shit,” she spits at him. “Like King Midas’ idiot brother.” It’s a stellar turn from Mulligan, who enjoys the rare chance to be bitter. This is a bitter world, though, a 1960s full of missed chances, failed talent and lost cats. The Coens wallow in it beautifully. The period sings on the screen, all cold streets and smoky alleys. Many have made comparisons with the cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – and credit to DoP Bruno Delbonnel, his washed-out beige Greenwich Village captures that old, worn atmosphere.
But there are notes of comedy here too: side-splitting chords that rip through the downbeat melodies. A brief appearance from John Goodman as a successful musician with a taste for the white stuff – and his mute chauffeur (Garrett Hedlund) – is amusing, while one awkward dinner party features the best on-screen use of the word “scrotum” since 1997’s Austin Powers. But the biggest laughs are found in the recording room, where Llewyn scores a backup part on Please Mr. Kennedy – a toe-tapping novelty song that sees Justin Timberlake singing nonsense (and Adam Driver shouting “outer space”) with a gloriously deadpan face.
The movie comes to life in these musical sequences, which are catchy and poetic in their own right – a testament to how big a part of the movie’s fabric they are. These are not just songs picked by the Coens, but songs chosen and performed by the characters. The movie is a 105-minute compilation album, which, like the best ballads, tells a simple story. At the heart of it, Oscar Isaac (a guitar player in real life) nails the head-hanging blues of Llewyn’s existence. Isaac doesn’t act. He droops.
Veering from morose to amusing, folk is a natural partner for the directors – a blend of melancholy and lively colour. “I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul!” the owner of the lost cat exclaims at one point. LLewyn Davis looks back at her with a dark glare.
Covering numbers without his partner, Mike Timlin, who committed suicide a few months before, Oscar’s voice hangs lonely in the Gaslight Cafe. This is as much a film about grief as it is guitars. In Soderbergh’s 2013 thriller Side Effects, one character defined depression as being unable to picture a future. “Don’t you think about the future?” Joan asks Llewyn as they bicker over coffee. “You mean flying cars?” he sneers back.
For Llewyn, like the cat he chases across Manhattan, there is no thinking about what comes next, just a resigned shrug as the present continues to happen. One shot of him on the New York subway cuts to the cat’s perspective as stations shuttle past – the kind of moment you would only find in a Coen brothers movie, an absurd beat of almost profound silliness.
Presented as an earnest biopic in the vein of Sweet and Lowdown, Inside LLewyn Davis is a moving character study that explores the pain of loss as well as the necessity of art to express it. Strolling the sorrowful scene just before Dylan arrived, their anti-hero is a talent without recognition. A cruelly cyclical structure suggests that will never change. Does Llewyn deserve stardom at all? Lost in the intimacy of his on-stage performance, The Coens, like Davis himself, soon stop caring. It isn’t about success. It’s what he does.
A mature, offbeat drama that celebrates the hurt and humour of failure, Inside Llewyn Davis never gets old.
Inside Llewyn Davis is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.