It’s 1961 in Greenwich Village and in a short time this city will become a Mecca for folk troubadours. This all started when a young man called Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan and became a legend. But Llewyn Davis’ life is taking a rather different route, it’s one that is as aimless and struggle-prone as it is filled with bad luck and biting cynicism.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the latest film to be written and directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen. Some comparisons have been drawn to their previous films, A Serious Man and O Brother, Where Art Thou? The latter comparison is because this film has folk music as a key feature and the former is because it is also an intense character study. The lead character was inspired by Dave Van Ronk, a little-known folk musician who was also found working through this same place and period.
Davis (Oscar Isaac) is an unlikeable, unkempt character who has a knack for upsetting and annoying people. He is a talented artist but he also can’t make a break. He is floundering in life and has to couch-surf and skive off the few friends he still has because he doesn’t even own a winter coat, much less a house. He has impregnated one ex-girlfriend and may have knocked up the wife, Jean (Carey Mulligan) of his best friend (Justin Timberlake). Mulligan unsurprisingly puts in an excellent performance as the fiery and hostile ex-fling and she puts it best when she says that everything Davis touches turns to shit.
Oscar Isaac has previously worked with Mulligan before, having played her ex-con husband in the film, Drive. Here, he is very believable as he plays a very different role; it’s one that is like the lead character in The Comedy crossed with Sixto Rodriguez, as he’s another folk musician who initially found fame and fortune to be rather elusive. In one scene Davis enters a men’s room and a piece of graffiti questions, “What are you doing?” And the answer is not very much.
The film is an understated character piece that is slow-paced and has a very scant plot. Apart from a recurring, running gag about a missing cat and some predictable observations about the dysfunctional relationships Davis has with his exes and family, there isn’t much more to this story than this particular freewheeling guy being in a “travelling band”.
The film’s biggest drawcard is its soundtrack. T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons) are the musical producers and curators and they found some old folk standards that could be reinterpreted. The songs and cheeky lines in the script help lend the film a modern, almost hipster feel, with Davis himself saying that if it’s “never old” or “never new” then it’s a folk song. Oscar Isaac also does an excellent job of performing these folk numbers live. He does as good a job as Sam Riley and his supporting actors did when they played Joy Division in Anton Corbijn’s Control.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a bittersweet film, a bleak winter-song whose good dialogue prevents it from becoming too downbeat. The Cohen Brothers are like Woody Allen here in that they inject elements of the absurd and the ridiculous into their script and still make it feel honest, real and authentic. The movie is ultimately a love letter to understatement, from its underrated lead folkie to its pastel cinematography- the mood is sombre and the tone is sobering. Inside Llewyn Davis is an intimate look at an unlikeable artist who struggles through an inevitable and predictable series of disappointments.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Inside Llewyn Davis is released in Australian cinemas tomorrow, 16th January.