Film review: Inside Llewyn Davis

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Inside Llewyn Davis movie poster Coen brothers

Reviewed by: Louisa Wu

Edited by Danielle McGee

Film: Inside Llewyn Davis
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Running Time:
104 minutes
Year of Release:

And life goes on...

In the dimly lit Gaslight Café, a scruffy haired folk musician enchants the audience with a soulful rendition of ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’. The musician in question is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), once part of a successful folk duo, but now struggling to sell records on his own. Llewyn hops from couch to couch in New York’s boroughs and relies on the kindness of friends (who are part of the 60s folk scene), or of complete strangers, to help support what is left of his career. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that contemplates whether Llewyn can survive as a solo act and get his life back on track.

While Llewyn is waiting for the industry to pick up his record, he discovers that he has impregnated Jean (Carey Mulligan), one half of the married folk duo ‘Jim and Jean’.  Mulligan gives a fierce performance, constantly berating Llewyn for being apathetic and doing nothing to improve his own situation. In an uncomfortable encounter in a café for example, she accuses him of, ‘not wanting to go anywhere.’ The audience soon discovers that she’s absolutely right.

Llewyn Davis is a difficult character to like: some may even call him pretentious, as he seems to take his music too seriously. In one particular scene, he adamantly claims that music is his ‘job’, and not simply a ‘parlour game’ (when asked by some old acquaintances to perform at their dinner party). However, the audience may also empathise with Llewyn to some extent; Isaac gives a nuanced performance that reveals him to be an individual trying his best to make a living from what he loves … even if it doesn’t pay well.

Although the tone of the film is fairly bleak, it is punctuated by moments of humour. Of note is the appearance of the makeshift folk group ‘The John Glenn Singers’ which comprises a reluctant Llewyn, a chirpy Jim (Justin Timberlake), and folk singer Al Cody (a hilarious and memorable Adam Driver). They meet together in the studio to record a catchy, radio friendly song entitled ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’. In this particular scene, Llewyn cringes at the fact he is performing something ‘commercial’, and even goes so far as to ask, ‘who wrote this?’ A surprised, slightly offended, Jim replies, ‘I did.’  

In Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers present a realistic, relatable and slightly humorous take on the experience of remaining stagnant in life. Llewyn’s journey is not cathartic; there isn’t a sudden realisation of what he needs to do in order to become a successful musician, or indeed a successful person. He just keeps doing what he’s been doing all along, hoping that one day everything will fall into place.

I would recommend this film to fans of music biopics and folk music, or to anyone who has closely followed (or is about to follow) Oscar Isaac’s career. He gives an outstanding performance as the title character.

Inside Llewyn Davis opens Thursday 16 January at Luna Leederville and Luna on SX.