Inside Llewyn Davis: spoiler-free review

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.

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9 responses to “Inside Llewyn Davis: spoiler-free review

  1. I wasn’t even aware of this one. It doesn’t sound classic Coen. Lebowski, Brother, Fargo, I can see why you use each of those as a touchstone as they’re all great. This sounds one I’ll likely catch on tv at some point or watch on a plane.

    • It’s possible that it’s not out in the UK yet. I’m in Barcelona and we sometimes get films before you do.
      I’m still mystified myself as to why the film doesn’t work. I just wanted a bit more fun, and although there was one hysterical moment, it was too gloomy for words but without the narrative power of another Coen brothers classic, No Country for Old Men.

  2. I am definitely a Coen brothers partisan, and I liked this movie more than you did, but hey, it happens. I know it’s a bleak, depressing film, but that was part of the appeal for me. I liked how uncompromisingly sad it was, how every decision Llewyn made was a bad one. But that’s just me.

    I do really disagree about the trip to Chicago, though: I thought it was very important to the narrative — less for what actually happened there than what Chicago symbolized.

    • The road trip was important to the story but also to show what a nasty guy Llewyn was to all the women in his life! I just think it went on too long. Heretofore, I’ve only read positive comments about the film from the critics so I felt I had to throw my hat in the ring too. Perhaps it does split the viewers however: it was a pick at Cannes, but as you mention in your blog today, overlooked at the Oscars.

  3. When I saw the preview for this movie, it looked magical and I couldn’t wait to see it. I was disappointed when I finally did. The Coen brothers have always made movies the movies they want to see (which I applaud), and there was wonderful period (Fargo, BL, O Brother) when what they were making clicked with most of us. Everything they do is skillfully done, but not since O Brother have I really enjoyed what they’ve done.

    • Hi Walt. I have also noticed that there is a disparity between the opinions of the professional critics and those of the general public. The former seem to love the film, but I suspect it’s because it’s their job to sit in cinemas all day and so therefore they see some terrible stuff. But if you pay to see this film with your own money, you’re not going to be entertained. I thought it was too depressing for words. In fact, it was about the wrong character, because I found the story of Peter, Paul and Mary type group much more interesting while it bobbed about in the background. And the cat of course. I loved the cat.

      • I didn’t find it depressing, but I did find the character of Llewyn Davis unlikeable. The cat came across to me as an affect. Something that was included to perhaps increase his likeability, and for that reason it rang a little false with me. I agree about the critics and the PPM group, as well as the Justin Timberlake character. And I did very much enjoy the music. Another favorite of mine by the Coens is Barton Fink.

      • I’ve never seen Barton Fink. I’m going to look that one up.
        I didn’t like Llewyn as a person either, and I also didn’t like John Goodman’s character. They were trying to produce the same magic as in his homicidal Bible salesman in O Brother, but it wasn’t anywhere near as good.

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