The life of fictional folk singer Llewyn Davis is like a moebius strip of disaster. Davis wanders early 1960s New York, caught in an endless loop of couch-surfing, bumming dollars and playing occasional gigs. He has cut albums but got no advance or royalties. His life is a mess.
Llewyn Davis has huge talent. He is a great singer and a fine guitarist. His songs are bleak and compelling. Alas, he is unable to make the step up to greater fame that others can. His few friends are happy to work in cheerful Peter, Paul and Mary type groups or record bouncy pop tunes. Overwhelmed by the shadows of his past, Davis cannot bring himself to make the transition. Doomed to failure, he can only watch as others catch the wave when folk music makes its entrance into mainstream rock and roll. As one potential employer tells him ‘I don’t see money in this’. Another tells him starkly, ‘you’re good but not great’.
The same can be said about this film. As a huge Coen brothers fan, I desperately wanted to like it, but ultimately I just wanted it to end. It has all the elements of a classic Coen brothers movie, but somehow things don’t quite fit into place. There is a man whose life is a disaster, struggling to get by, like The Big Lebowski, but none of the characters in Llewyn Davis are as fun as the Dude, except for a scene-stealing turn by Justin Timberlake. The songs are good but they lack the depth and joy of the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The world is cold and cruel, but the frost of New York never feels as visceral and all-encompassing as the snowdrifts of Fargo.
As a film about the step that people take from being a wannabe to a failure, Inside Llewyn Davis is a depressing movie. There were memorable moments, especially Lleywn’s struggle with a ginger cat that he has to carry around the city subway. Unfortunately, there was also a lot of padding, such as a pointless road trip to Chicago which does nothing to move the plot onwards. The film is about fifteen minutes too long, but then, that’s true of almost every movie these days.
The early 1960s folk scene in the USA was a fascinating time but this movie is not the best depiction of it. I would advise people to skip it and read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One instead.
Chronicles was an obvious inspiration for Llewyn Davis’ itinerant lifestyle in the film. It’s a beautifully written tale of a penniless wannabe living off the kindness and charity of friends before hitting the big time. Inside Llewyn Davis, however, is only for real Coen Brothers fans, or the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, who inexplicably awarded it the Grand Prix back in May last year.