Okie folkie, no karaoke – ★★★★★
We first wrote about it almost exactly a year ago and we’re finally getting to see the latest work from the filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen – the story of a fictional folksinger by the name of Llewyn Davis as he navigates the music scene of New York’s Greenwich village in the early 60s.
Inside Llewyn Davis is loosely based on the real-life story of Dave Van Ronk, and while there’s no name-checking of real stars here, it’s not hard to find tips of the hat to the Clancy Brothers, Peter Paul and Mary, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott or Tom Paxton. And in fact it’s really Bob Dylan’s spirit which lingers over the whole film. Consider i) the rather surreal moment at the film’s conclusion alluding to his own breakthrough performance and subsequent newspaper review from Robert Shelton in 1961 and ii) the front cover for his breakthrough album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan providing the template for the cinematography and production design of the film – suede jacket in the snow and all.
Llewyn Davis is a troubled and tragic figure who fits in brilliantly into the Coens encyclopedia of similarly burdened front men from the likes of The Man Who Wasn’t There or A Serious Man. You’ll find yourself rooting for him despite the fact he’s doing a lot of things that shouldn’t really endear himself to an audience. Oscar Isaac is superb as Davis and for those of us who admittedly only knew him as “that other guy from Drive“, he reveals himself to be an actor of tremendous talent – and he can hold a tune too as shown most effectively in the film’s opening minutes as he plays “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”.
Speaking of which T Bone Burnett deserves great credit for assembling a soundtrack as good as he has here, and while it won’t change the rules in the same way as his work for O Brother, Where art thou? did, it’s still a worthy memento for the film. While the gradual movement of folk music away from deep and meaningful themes to airy-fairy pop is derided quite a bit on-screen, there is still a huge amount of respect being shown to the writers and interpreters of these songs.
Throughout the film nothing seems to go right for our man Davis and you’ll find yourself asking the question of whether this is all down to bad luck or whether he is really the victim of his own downfall. The Coens’ script ends up being rather cyclical – whether Llewyn continues in this never-ending cursed nightmare or breaks out of the rut after the credits have rolled is up to your own perspective on life.
The great Coen brothers films have always managed to find a balance between humour, drama and weirdness and it’s a delight to report that all three are well-served here. We’ve spent a few years with them sticking to the rules a bit with fairly straight-up (and perfectly commendable and enjoyable) work like True Grit and Burn After Reading lacking any great surprises. There’s one 12 or 15 minute sequence here showing Llewyn taking a trip to Chicago (and back) which reminds you of everything great about the Coens – beautifully shot, hilarious one-liners, great dialogue, a sense of a much deeper meaning, a bit of John Goodman for good measure – and has you asking yourself whether you’ve really gotten a handle on what is going on in this increasingly darkening comedy.
Whether the film will be to everyone’s taste is open for debate. It contains a deceptively simple narrative where nothing goes right which will hang around and loiter in your brain much like other “simple” films like Nebraska, Frances Ha and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints did in the last few months. While it won a number of critics awards, its virtual shut-out at the Oscars (some token nods in sound and cinematography are all it got) suggest it just didn’t sit well with the mostly middle-aged voters in the Academy who may have been looking for a more straight-forward biopic. If you’re looking for that, go watch Walk The Line again.
Opening across Ireland on January 24th 2014, screened as part of the 2014 Digital Biscuit (more info/tickets here)