Inside Llewyn Davis

Art & Culture

A new Coen Bros film is always an event,but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great movie. This new one occupies a space somewhere between the greats (Fargo, O Brother, True Grit) and the stinkers (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading), alongside interesting-but-not-special films like The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man. In fact this could be the third part of a trilogy – The Man Who Never Made It.

The film is set in the winter of New York in 1961. It’s cold and miserable and folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is tramping the streets with his guitar looking for work and a place to stay. He was part of a dup, but his partner jumped off the Washington Bridge. His solo album isn’t selling; the cat just escaped from the apartment where he was crashing; and a woman called Jean who he slept with (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant, as well as being permanently pissed off with him. And did I mention he was cold?

The film is a composed of a series of fairly fruitless journeys, interspersed with inconclusive encounters. Gigs don’t lead anywhere; a journey to Chicago results in rejection; he loses the cat; and in between times, he sits on the subway gazing out of the window. Part of the problem is that he’s an arsehole, a dickhead and a fuckwit. He has the charm of a barbed wire fence, with a short fuse, an intense sense of entitlement and no empathy for others. Others have the human touch, such as Jim (Justin Timberlake), Jean’s earnest and well-meaning boyfriend, or Troy Nelson, a soldier on leave who sings his songs with great sincerity.

Llewyn has some talent, but not enough to help him stand out among the crowd, unlike the kid at the end of the film singing Farewell in a familiarly haunting cheesegrating voice (yes, Dylan). Even when he takes part in a session for a novelty song ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ about the space race, he takes a session fee for Jean’s abortion, rather than a slice of the royalties which might have made him richer. He’s a loser, and despite the fact that he’s on screen throughout, he’s not an especially sympathetic loser. It’s hard to love someone who treats other people with so little care and affection, and lapses into tirades of abuse whenever anything goes wrong.

And of course, since this is a Coen Bros movie, there are any number of cultural references waiting to be picked up by audience members who think they’re clever. We discover late in the the film that the missing cat is called Ulysses, which is of course not an allusion to the Greek hero (whose journey home was mocked in O Brother Where Art Thou?), but the character in James Joyce’s book of that name. Surnames like Nelson and Grossman are echoing Ricky Nelson and Albert Grossman (Dylan’s manager). And so on and on. It’s mildly interesting if you find that kind of thing interesting, but it doesn’t make the film any more engaging or Llewyn any more attractive.

I am somewhat at a loss to understand why so many critics have fallen over themselves to praise this film to the heavens. It seems clear to me that as I said at the beginning, this is only slightly better than average among the collected works of Joel and Ethan. Unless of course the critics identify with Llewyn Davis and think that they too coulda been contenders if only they’d had the breaks.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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