Following in the footsteps of Fargo’s Marge, The Big Lebowski’s the Dude and No Country for Old Men’s Anton, Oscar Isaak adds hid Llewyn Davis to the considerable cannon of Coen characters. Unlike the aforementioned however, Llewyn is an unremarkable man. He’s not a folksy police officer, a stoner bowler or merciless killer with a memorable bowl haircut. At best he is forgettable, at worst a loser; a folk singer slumbing it in the village before Greenwich became the epicentre of the folk explosion that followed.
We meet our (anti)hero playing his regular weekend set to the regular weekend crowd at a small local bar before taking in a week in his company. What unfolds is a familiar tale of a struggling musician, friends couches become temporary beds, money is sought after but rarely received and the out-of-touch industry folk are reluctant go anywhere near Davis and his harmonious travelling tales.
Under an almost monochrome filter and a cold New York winter, Inside Llewyn Davis is peppered with touches that soon elevate it from a run of the mill portrait of a down on his luck artist. Davis’ week is crammed with encounters with a rolling sidebar of characters, each offering a glimpse of Davis’ life away from the stage and the obstacles he faces; doomed, fleeting romances, fruitless encounters with industry folk, recording jingles and avoiding responsibility. Assembled before us are a brilliantly scrubbed down Carey Mulligan as Jean and a perennially upbeat Justin Timberlake as her boyfriend Jim. There’s also room for a mythical angry rant from John Goodman and a bumbling turn from Adam Driver as the Coens allow flecks of era authenticity to subtly construct a backdrop for what is essentially a character focussed tale.
There’s an importance in the period setting – this isn’t the Greenwich of Dylan, Joni Mitchell et al, the one that drew the crowds and the cameras, rather the years just before when those involved in the folk scene were poor and unconcerned by fame. It was a time of camaraderie between artists who were closely, often romantically, linked and would be the last ones able to predict the attention their sounds and their neighbourhood would go on to receive. In this setting, someone like Davis could go under the radar, shuffling from one menial job to another, earnestly plying his musical trade to appreciative but unenthusiastic weekend crowds.
There’s an authenticity given to those songs too. A number of them come from real life Greenwich resident an folk trailblazer Dave Van Ronk, as does the films title, lifted from an early Van Ronk record. This is no biopic though, these details added to give colour and a base to a very Coen take on the era.
After premiering and being warmly rewarded at Cannes, many were expecting ILD to feature handsomely among the Academy Awards a few months down the line. To expect that though would be to misunderstand the nature of the film and the character at its centre. There is no redemptive arc to Davis career, no miraculous discovery to snap him out of his malaise. The Oscars award life’s winners, those with a grand story and a glittering end. Inside Llewyn Davis is not that, if anything it’s a rags to rags tale, bookended in perfect symmetry, wonderfully told and sumptuously photographed.
A film about the New York folk scene of the 60’s could easily have been a story of the extraordinary, yet here are the Coen’s putting back in the ordinary and doing so with all those hallmarks we’ve come to expect over the years, great storytelling, great characters and great dialogue.
DVD/BD Release Date:
26th May 2014(UK)
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake,
Buy:Inside Llewyn Davis [Blu-ray]  or or [DVD]