Movie Reviews

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’: A melancholic music odyssey

By Anjali RaguramanMovies - 16 January 2014 12:00 AM | Updated 2:21 PM

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’: A melancholic music odyssey

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Rating: 4.5 / 5

Set in a time pre-Bob Dylan and before the Beatlemania, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac from ‘Drive’) is a down-and-out folk singer in 1960s New York, who moves from couch to couch in the Five Boroughs as he tries to make a solo career for himself after the suicide of his singing partner.

His few friends include Jim and Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) and an elderly couple who live in the Upper West Side.

Llewyn is not a character for whom you would root.

While he sings well, he isn’t the sort to ingratiate himself to the audience, or his friends. As Jean, played with venomous spite by Mulligan, puts it: he’s more likely to turn everything to shit, “like King Midas’ idiot brother”.

True to his prickly disposition, he spends less time than he would like playing gigs in smoke-filled basement clubs, and more time scowling as he traverses interstate in the biting winter without a coat.

In between selling out on his creative identity and trying to get a paying gig, he befriends a tabby cat called "Ulysses", the only creature capable of having a non-confrontational relationship with him.


The film is also set at a turning point in the music scene, where folk music is slowly taking over jazz among the hip crowd. But in order to make a quick buck, Llewyn also has to contend with the advent of sugary pop music that the masses prefer. It is expertly tackled in a comical scene with LLewyn, Jim and Al Cody (played hilariously by Adam Driver from TV series ‘Girls’) as they record a bizarrely amusing ‘Please Mr Kennedy’. 

It’s a stumbling ‘Odyssey’ of sorts, and the Coen brothers, who directed this, also referenced it in their previous work ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’. Llewyn wanders through life and hits one roadblock after another, facing homelessness, failed relationships and not making it as a musician.

Therein lies the fimmakers' genius. For such a loathsome character, Llewyn is one that draws you in despite his flaws.

However unlikable he is, Llewyn is most at ease when he is with his guitar, absentmindedly strumming while on a road trip, or completely consumed in one his performances.


Isaac, whose most memorable role before this was probably as Standard Gabriel in 'Drive' with Ryan Gosling, is a revelation. There is soulfulness in his performance that is hard to manufacture, as he moves effortlessly between actor and singer. Like a troubadour, he tells stories through song. You are completely and utterly drawn in by his sublime, captivating performance. 

Isaac performed songs live on set without a click track (audio cues to keep musicians in time), delivering a usable performance with every take.

Oscar Isaac in a breakout performance as Llewyn Davis

The film also deserves special mention as a marvellous tribute to folk music, which was repurposed by executive music producer T-Bone Burnett (with help from Marcus Mumford from English folk-rock band Mumford & Sons). 'Fare Thee Well', a folk standard, lingers with its simplicity and grace.


It is yet another film in which the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, prove their originality and deft hand at storytelling with a dark sense of wit and humour.

The story is based loosely on the life of folk musician Dave Van Ronk, a Greenwich village stalwart whom Bob Dylan considered an influence. And the Coen brothers, in their typical fashion, chose to focus on someone lesser known.

For all the melancholy in the film, there are moments of surreal, absurd hilarity. And if this film were song, it would be a broken-hearted ballad. 

As with most of the Coen brothers' films, you’ll probably find yourself wanting to rewatch it repeatedly. Partly because there are details and subtleties that you probably missed the first time around, but also because the songs stay with you long after the credits have rolled. 

'Inside Llewyn Davis' opens in cinemas 16 January 2014