Inside Llewyn Davis

By Peter Towe

Published on Friday, December 6, 2013


Inside Llewyn Davis tells the story of struggling folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), couch surfing as he attempts a solo career  in 1960’s New York City.  Written, produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, their first film since 2010’s True GritInside Llewyn Davis tells the story of an artist who refused to compromise his vision and the struggles that enviably grew.  Llewyn had chances to make money and “sell out”, but wanted to make it as a solo act.  In a time before Bob Dylan, folk music in 1961 was not taken seriously.  Most folk acts were at least two people so Llewyn pursuing a solo career was not a lucrative choice.  Llewyn does not have enough money to afford a winter coat, and relies solely on his friends to provide him with a couch to sleep on, until he inevitably wears out his welcome.  The story is told through the eyes of Llewyn as it is a dark and moody story, but it has lots of the dry humor we’ve come to expect from the Coen Brothers.  As Llewyn goes from couch to couch he must decide if this (his dream) is going to happen, or if he should just give up and join the merchant marines.  The idea of following your dreams and not compromising your artistic integrity is a main theme I took away from the film.  Llewyn was talented enough that he could have made a comfortable financial situation for himself, but he chose to do it his way, and unfortunately for him, he was ahead of his time. By the time Bob Dylan came through the folk scene, things would be changed forever.

A big reason Llewyn doesn’t compromise and doesn’t do studio gigs with cheesy mainstream folk singers is that he doesn’t just want to “exist”, meaning he wanted to go for his dream and not be told by anyone else how to do it.  While it is a stubborn way to go about it, he has a point.  Llewyn is asked to play guitar in a studio recording for a song written by his “friend” Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) and while the gig pays well, Llewyn is not content.  The song is goofy and the mainstream folk music of the times was not what he wanted to do.  He was going for something new, but never found his audience.

Inside Llewyn Davis does an excellent job in showing not only New York in the early 60’s, but what it would be like if you were sleeping from couch to couch not knowing where you’re going to get your next dollar.  The set designs were detailed, and never needed to show huge set pieces.  The streets looked like Greenwich Village in the 1960’s (I was not alive yet, but have seen pictures), which included everything from the cars, to the buildings, and the interiors succeeded in showing the small size of most apartments.  Tight hallways and cramped  staircases, gave you the feeling of actually being in the apartment buildings.  Space is very limited, and really shows when you see how close Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim’s front door is to their neighbors.  If your not used to living in  city, the movie excellently shows how crammed it can most often be.  The muted grays and browns used in the film gave it an almost black and white look, which worked well with it being a period piece.  The Coen Brothers use color very well, and the dull colors they used in this film added to the tone, as things never seem too bright or optimistic.


The Coen Brothers once again wrote and shot a unique story.  One of my favorite aspects of a Coen Brothers film is that you never know what you’re going to get out of the story.  Every movie they make covers a different subject in a different time and while many characters throughout their movies have similarities, each movie they make has some new and different characters that you had not seen yet in a film.  The Coen’s character arches are not your typical start here and end there.  The audience never knows if the character will learn something, or maybe not.  Oscar Isaac gives a great performance as Llewyn, and shows that he has great range as an actor, and is able to keep the audience engaged in his performance.    The beauty of a Coen Brothers movie, which is often lacking in Hollywood films, is being surprised and not knowing how the character will change, or if the character will change at all.  Along with these unique stories, the Coen’s shoot their movies similarly.  They have their own style, and when you turn on a Coen film, you know you’re watching a Coen Brothers movie.

While certainly not a perfect movie, I can’t find too much to complain about.  I was surprised how into the folk music I became by the end of the film and could certainly relate to the main character.  There are some notable scenes I could spend more time talking about, but you should go see this movie as soon as it opens near you.  Coen Brothers fans will find themselves in a similar territory of dry, dark humor, and even if your not a fan of their films, you will enjoy this moody yet hysterical portrait of a struggling musician trying to make it in 1960’s New York City.

Inside Llewyn Davis stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, and Justin Timberlake, and opens in limited theaters December 6, and everywhere December 20, 2013.

The Good

+ Classic Coen Brothers cinematography.

+ As always, the Coen's crafted together a beautiful screenplay.

+ Oscar Isaac is proving he has the range to become a household name.

The Bad

- Three years between Coen Brothers movies is too long.


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