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Inside Llewyn Davis - review

Feb 24, 2014 Film & TV

Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen


Inside Llewyn Davis is the loveliest movie ever to be made about a selfish and cynical folk musician. Set in 1961 against a bitterly cold New York winter, it is a trademark Coen brothers shaggy-dog tale about a week in the life of Llewyn Davis, whose tentative hold on the West Village folk scene is about to be eclipsed by a certain Mr Bob Dylan. Not that he knows it. Llewyn is more concerned about scraping together some cash and a winter coat, though his troubles are about to double, and double again.

We all know a Llewyn Davis; the artist friend who takes the quick buck, travels the passive path, and wonders why they haven’t “made it” yet. Stupendously talented but his own worst enemy, Davis calls friends’ couches his bed, heckles other musicians, bypasses career opportunities and generally fucks up while fucking around.

He can’t even keep a cat safely inside the apartment of a well-off Upper West Side academic couple upon whose sofa he has crashed and so, early on, we see Llewyn travelling south on the subway with a marvellous marmalade fellow (a distant screen cousin of Cat, the feline familiar of Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ similarly rootless Holly Golightly).

Inside Llewyn Davis is very loosely drawn from the world and music of Dave Van Ronk, the much-admired “mayor of MacDougall Street” (where the Gaslight live music club was based). The Coens’ version of this scene is colder and less collegial than you’d expect the folk scene to be; nobody seems to be having much of a good time jamming out the tunes – except, perhaps, a turtlenecked Justin Timberlake in folk-nerd mode, and Adam Driver from Girls exercising his full vocal range.

And yet, you may find yourself falling for the sour-mouthed Llewyn Davis even as his decisions get worse and worse. The casting of Oscar Isaac in all his depressive hotness certainly helps, but more than that, it’s the shadow of his musical partner’s suicide that follows him from the start. And it’s gorgeous to look at, even if some of the period detail is a little off (it seems altogether too easy to procure an abortion in 1961). The rich browns and olives of the production design are made to drown in, and the songs, oh, the songs. Tender, hurting, spare, and masterfully brought together by T Bone Burnett.


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