Director: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abrahams
Written by: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Running Time: 104 mins
Release Date: 24th January 2014
If there is one thing you cannot accuse the Coen Brothers of being, and that is predictability. They refuse to be held down to one genre, to follow stories in an unconventional way and to deliver characters that are quirky, sometimes weird but never boring. Inside Llewyn Davis is one such film. Unlike any of their now delicious back catalogue, it’s another tremendous achievement from a film partnership who just get better and better with every film they touch.
Llewyn Davis is a failing folk singer whose life is a mess. Hated by most, his singing partner committed suicide and since then he has slowly crumbled. Without anywhere to go, he stays on the floors of those who will let him. One such day, he accidentally lets a couple’s ginger cat out. Unable to return it, the cat must now travel with him around the unforgiving coldness of New York. This is a week in the life of Davis, coping with personal problems, struggling to raise money, travelling to Chicago in the vain hope of finding something, this is a man who has lost his way.
The thing to first say about Llewyn Davis is that there is no plot as such, just a series of events, or happenings. It’s a road movie of sorts, a personal odyssey, set against the backdrop of 1961 Greenwich Village, when folk music was on the cusp of coming into the mainstream and while Davis is at the heart of it, he’s one of life’s great almost beens.
There is so much to admire here, from the use of colour (muted browns and greens) which add to the coldness of the surroundings. Everything is cold, as Davis wanders coatless, the weather reflects his own persona, that of a man who is frosty to everyone and everything. They have a wonderful eye for the visual and even though their usual cinematographer Roger Deakins is missing, he is ably replaced by Bruno Delbonnet. One particular scene that stands out is the cat’s view of travelling the New York subway. Somewhat magical.
Then there’s the music. Co-produced by the brothers and T-Bone Burnett, this has a superb soundtrack, from the traditional (Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)) to the hilarious (the space anthem, Please, Mr Kennedy) that manages not only to evoke the times and mood of the piece but stick with you long after seeing the film. What also helps is that the performances are live and this adds depth.
As you would expect from a Coen Brothers films, it is littered with terrific performances. John Goodman, in a small role as a disgruntled jazz man, has limited screen time but still manages to create a well-rounded character. Justin Timberlake is good as folk singer, Jim but you do get the feeling he is holding back, while it’s nice to see Carey Mulligan in more sombre mood as Jean, a singer who may or may not have reasons to hate Davis. She spits venom when she has the opportunity, in a role that is a million miles from the sweet Daisy in The Great Gatsby. Donning dark long hair, it’s one of her finest.
The film’s central performance is from Oscar Isaac and he is fantastic. As the bitter, sometime poisonous Davis, this is a man you really shouldn’t care about and as we follow him around going from one mishap to another, you can only think he has got himself to blame, yet at the same time, you are drawn into his journey and part of you wants him to find some happiness or success.
Never happy with just playing a straight forward narrative the Coens have added plenty of subplots and metaphors to chew over. What is it with the cat? (Not giving anything away but its name is fairly important). They toy with us like a cat would to a ball of wool.
This isn’t going to be for everyone and it seems the members of the Academy Awards fit into that bill, as it has solely been ignored for this year’s Oscars. It’s pacing is leisurely and some will find the lack of plot annoying. Yet it is a massively satisfying feature that will have those who invest their time, richly rewarded. Off-beat, quirky and with a head spinning ending, it’s a masterful piece of cinema from a couple of master film makers.