By Adam Sturrock
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writer: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, F Murray Abraham
Llewyn Davis (Isaac) is damaged goods. Begrudgingly getting by couch surfing and stealing hot meals from embittered friends, it seems that he is one good record away from making it big time but tragically never gets near. Davis opens the film playing in a dive bar called Greenwich Vilage, pouring his heart out over a battered guitar with his worn out fingers but rather than meeting rapturous applause, he gets lukewarm appreciation. When told that someone in the back wants to talk to him, rather than an ecstatic record executive, he meets a punch to the gut for no (immediate) reason; it seems to herald a suggestion of what is yet to come in this luckless tale.
While he has no money to rub together, his total dislike of “selling out” is at odds with becoming successful and making a living. When asked to play in a novelty recording of the song, “Please, Mr Kennedy”, he sees it as a personal failure that he is walking away from his folk-roots and rejects the opportunity to take royalty payments. Painfully, the record becomes a hit and further consigns him to semi-hoboism.
Having just broken away from a promising partnership, Llewyn releases an EP called Inside Llewyn Davis, which is quickly gathering dust and ironically titled due to the little he reveals about himself in the songs he croons over. When bunking at a fellow artists’ house, he notices a similar box of worn albums recorded that would never sell and we start to see that many artists will struggle to break the barrier between anonymity and stardom. It later seems that Lllewyn half-believes that he will be successful, hoping that each stumble is another “third time unlucky” rather than just meandering from place to place.
What is so tragic is that the movie setting of 1961 is just before the introduction of a certain folk singer from Minnesota. Llewyn may painfully never be who he wants to be and has to mold himself to what others want him to become: a cable-knit sweater wearing ditty singer, or a second place post-Dylan folk artist or even just the sweet harmony in a mildly known group; always the bridesmade, never the bride. The Coen brothers leave us unknowing to see where Davis will go and that is what adds to the heartbreak of such a tightly made film.
With such a spellbinding soundtrack, it should also be noted that this film possesses an equally supreme cast. Each member seems to have been expertly cast, adding something important to the story but never being more than a hitchhiker to Davis’ tale. Ranging from Carrie Mulligan’s foul mouthed Jean to Coen stalwart, John Goodman playing a brief but lasting role as the perpetually inebriated jazz hipster. While Oscar plays a very distant character, he reeks of authenticity and his melancholy disposition never seems to wear out its welcome.
From past experience, the Coen brothers have a habbit of making broken but endearing characters and with ILD, this is again, the case. Knockout.