INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
A week in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a young singer / guitarist as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
Review by Louise Keller:
The wonderful thing about a Coen Brothers film is the fact that you are never sure exactly what you are going to get. One thing is for sure, you will always get more than you've bargained for. This is the case for Inside Llewyn Davis, 2013 Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner, which offers an insightful and entertaining slice of life into the Greenwich Village 1961 folk music scene. Meticulously conceived, directed and performed by a standout cast, we are drawn into a reality in which its struggling protagonist traipses from couch to couch night after night, his music being the only thing that grounds him together with his well-worn Gibson guitar. The film is saturated by angst and irony; its humour evolving naturally from the precarious and desperate situations in which Llewyn Davis finds himself.
Inspired by and loosely based on the life of the late folk singer Dave Van Ronk, the film begins in the smoke filled, darkly lit Gaslight Café, where Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) accompanies himself on guitar as he soulfully sings 'Hang Me'. The decision to play the entirety of the song and not just a snippet allows us to closely observe the singer, listen to the lyrics and become part of the scene. Additionally, the fact that all the music is played live and not voice-synced adds greatly to the grit and cred. What happens next, when a man in a suit beats him up outside, is a marker, and a moment we do not forget.
I wrote that A Serious Man (2009) - one of the Coen Brothers' lesser known films - is their take on The Meaning of Life, illustrated by the well of traditions from which Jews draw. In some ways, there are parallels with this film in that the keenly observed view of life has a Jewish slant and drives its characters and narrative. The film plays out like a road movie in which different characters appear during Llewyn's trauma-ridden week.
Surprisingly, the first key character is an endearing, ginger tabby cat, who Llewyn carries under his arm through the freezing streets of New York, into the underground and in a car bound for Chicago. (Full marks to the cat, whose name we do not discover until the end, for a fine, naturalistic performance.)
It is great to see Carey Mulligan back in form, in her best role since her Oscar nominated turn in An Education. Here she plays Jean (part of the Jim and Jean singing act) and the vitriol she spews to Llewyn with whom she has had an affair, is palpable. Peter Paul and Mary's song 500 Miles takes us back to the era. As Jim, Justin Timberlake is wonderful - the scene in the recording studio, when Isaac, Timberlake and Adam Driver record 'a thing' (Please Mr Kennedy), a ridiculous, jingle-like song filled with hilarious intonations and affectations, is a knockout. John Goodman is good value as the folk-music cynic and F. Murray Abraham delivers great understatement as the Chicago agent who has seen it all and is impressed by nothing.
The film works beautifully on its own terms enveloped in Jess Gonchor's stunning production design; we feel as though we have slipped back in time. It is not as commercial as many of the Coen Brothers' other films, but it will please film lovers and those who are willing to take a leap of faith.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Oh those were the days, songs like 500 Miles, Dinks Song, which is closely identified with Van Ronk, Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, Green Green Rocky Road, the folk ballads Shoals of Herring, The Death of Queen Jane, The Last Thing on My Mind, Please, Mr. Kennedy, The Old Triangle, Cocaine, Old MacDonald, Leaving the Cat and Storms Are on the Ocean ...
But even for those, like me, who aren't folk music aficionados, the Coen brothers have composed something special with their anti-hero story of a young muso on whom fate has slammed the door. The surprising thing is that despite this apparently bleak theme, the Coens craft something unique, warm and big hearted. Much of the credit goes also to Oscar Isaac, (remember him as East Timorese leader-to-be, José Ramos-Horta in Robert Connolly's Balibo ?). Isaac is both vulnerable and likeable, but he is a lost soul who engages us.
Wonderful characters are created by a great cast; Carey Mulligan is a terrific spitfire as Jean, his ex, John Goodman is formidable as the bloated and rasping Roland Turner, F. Murray Abraham (good to see) is strikingly effective as music promoter Bud Grossman (in a single scene but you'll remember it) and Justin Timberlake is great as Llewyn's friend Jim. But there are many more superb supports, some mere cameos yet resonant, such as Adam Driver as Al Cody, whose performance in the studio when recording Please, Mr. Kennedy is a hoot, and Garrett Hedlund as the mysterious Johnny Five.
The story weaves in and out of ups and downs during a week in Llewyn's life, as relationships are busted, hopes are dashed and chances missed. Why are we interested? Because the authenticity of the character, the era and the impediments are recognisable; we sympathise with him, but even more than that, we understand him, faults 'n all. And also because of the sometimes offbeat and subversive humour (whether visual or action) that binds us to the film.
The Coens have recaptured the dynamics of the era and harnessed it to drive the film. It's a particular time in America, on the eve of major change in everything including music. Bob Dylan is about to be heard.
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INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (M)
CAST: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Adam Driver, Max Casella
PRODUCER: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Scott Rudin
DIRECTOR: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
SCRIPT: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Bruno Delbonnel
EDITOR: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (as Roderick Jayes)
MUSIC: Various artists
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jess Gonchor
OTHER: T. Bone Burnett (executive music producer)
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 16, 2014