Film Review : Inside Llewyn Davis


New York, 1961 – the fifties are gone, the sixties are yet to swing. Shot in washed out greys and wintry browns, this historical no-man’s land is the perfect setting for Inside Llewyn Davis – a tale of chilly rootlessness.

Llewyn, the folk musician at the heart of the film, is of no fixed abode. Constantly on the move, he seems destined to wander – a stoical Ulysses of Manhattan with no winter coat and no destination. We first encounter Llewyn on a basement stage in Greenwich Village, singing the refrain from Hang Me Oh Hang Me (‘Poor Boy, I been all around this world’), and the film proceeds to loop itself around a week in the life of this immaculately-bearded troubadour.

So he lugs his guitar around icy streets, sleeps on any available couch, and generally inhabits a transitory world of train platforms, coffee shops and apartment lobbies. The Coen Brothers are careful not to romanticise Llewyn’s lifestyle, but while it’s clear his existence lacks direction there’s also a sad beauty to its repetitions, like the wistful chorus of a folk ballad.

Llewyn is the latest in a long line of sincere Coen brother characters: men devoted to a particular way of life, whether it revolves around art, religion, duty, or just abiding. Expert in capturing both the absurdity and bravery of such devotion, Ethan and Joel are amongst the finest purveyors of the tragi-comic. In their early film Barton Fink we hear John Goodman’s character before we see him – a hysterical wailing through a hotel room wall that seems to modulate between laughter and despair. It’s a moment that points towards much of the Coens’ work – subtle mixtures of humour and pain, pity and admiration, real and surreal – and Inside Llewyn Davis is another skilfully balanced blend.

Goodman appears briefly again here, starring in a brilliantly-unhinged sequence around which the film pivots. With a vague plan to audition for a Chicago music manager, Llewyn hitches a ride with Goodman’s sardonic, aging jazz junkie and a comically aloof beat poet named Johnny Five. Thus begins a bizarre road trip across the highway voids of North East America – a mini-masterpiece within a masterpiece, riddled with razor dialogue, but brooding with Edward Hopper angst and Lynchian menace.

But as ever with the Coens these moments of apparent significance are swiftly undercut by farce, banality or circumstance, bringing us back to the basic absurdity of the human lot. Inside Llewyn Davis may be peppered with moments of lucid beauty, but they are quickly dissolved back into the chaos, contingency, and comedy of everyday life. The laughs are genuine and frequent, but they are only fleeting major chords in what ultimately is a minor key lament. And like a sad melody, the film makes no judgement, contains no message: it is a parable with no moral, full of half-glimpsed epiphanies that change nothing.

Gareth Thornton   

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