INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Rated M (Frequent coarse language and mature themes). 105 minutes.
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is the title of the recently-released album of folk songs from the central character, Llewyn Davis. But the film intends for us to go beyond the music, to go exploring inside the character and psyche of Davis, perhaps surprised at some of the things we find there, but also disappointed in that there is not so much to find. And Davis himself, during the film, has to go inside himself, seeking the truth about himself, also disappointed in what he finds, with people thinking that he is a loser. And in many ways, he really is.
This is a film from the Coen Brothers, who have been making excellent films fairly consistently for almost 30 years. With this one they won the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes 2013. It has received several further nominations and awards.
The setting is 1961, New York City, the time of the emergence of the folk music that was to characterise the early part of the 1960s, the movement, pushed by the experience of the Vietnam war, which led to many of the popular singers, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary (whose 500 Miles is performed during the film). At the beginning, Davis is singing a ballad, about life, about death, about love, about regrets – with forlorn lyrics. By the end of the film, when he sings the ballad again, we realise and, perhaps, he realises, that he is come full circle but that it is a very narrow circle.
Oscar Isaac has received great praise for his performance. He has a wide range of films behind him, The Nativity Story (as Joseph) Drive, down, and as Jose Ramos Horta in Balibo, but he also has a strong future ahead of him.
Davis wanders New York, gets some small gigs in a club, goes to visit his friends only to find that Jean (Cary Mulligan) is pregnant and he wants to get money to pay for an abortion for her. Her husband, Jim (Justin Timberlake), is unaware of this and offers Davis an opportunity to do a record of a comic song in praise of the President, John F.Kennedy. Davis also catches hospitality from these friends and from a Jewish professor in upper New York City. They help him but he seems unable to help himself.
The film also features the strong presence of a cat, owned by the Professor, but accidentally locked out of his apartment, with the elevator driver refusing to take care of him and Oscar having to carry him around the city, almost losing him in the subway. We focus on the cat, perhaps a symbol of Llewin Davis himself, getting lost, being found again (or, perhaps, not).
There is also something of the picaresque about Davis’s journey, hitching a ride to Chicago hoping to get some recognition and performance dates, with John Goodman in the back seat, larger-than-life, with sardonic observations and wisecracks about music. In Chicago he meets an entrepreneur, F.Murray Abraham, who does some plain talking to Davis.
The other option that Davis has is to go back to the merchant navy where he is known, especially as the son of his father also in that navy. There seems to be little love lost between father and son and Davis goes wandering again. He is rude in his dealings with others, ridiculing some of the other singers, leading to his being beaten up, twice.
And, at the end, there he is in the same place, singing the same song, the same forlorn lyrics, which have book ended Inside Llewin Davis as well as his own attempted self-exploration.
The look and the tone of the film are greyish. There is a certain glumness, bleakness about the characters and the story. But this does not mean that this is not a very good film, that it is not an interesting film – rather it is a slice of life, a visit to a particular time and place, a memoir of the music of the period and what it meant. The visit inside Llewin Davis is both challenging and effective.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.
Out January 16, 2014.