Inside Llewyn Davis
Thursday, 23 January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

The film might be downbeat, but Carey Mulligan is a hit

Written by Kat Brown
kat brown1-BWDon’t be fooled by the whiskers. Despite featuring the finest turn by a ginger cat since Jonesy in Alien, the latest film from the directing/producing/writing/editing/tea-making Coen brothers is not a cheery winter tonic. It is, in fact, quite monumentally depressing – best to watch it in May.

If your vitamin-D levels can stand watching someone repeatedly knock themselves into the ground, this male version of Frances Ha, which won the main prize at the last Cannes Film Festival, is worth a go. Not least for Carey Mulligan, here displaying the impressive singing skills she debuted in 2011’s Shame, on songs written by her husband Marcus Mumford, of Mumford & Sons, and arranged by the American music legend T-Bone Burnett.

In the pre-Dylan folk scene of early 1960s New York, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a musician and ex-marine trying to make it solo since the suicide of his singing partner ended their successful double act.

The film starts with Llewyn singing, and immediately pitches him as a star. His songs are beautiful. He’s charismatic, and a bit sexy in the right light. Then he opens his mouth and your heart sinks because it’s immediately apparent that he’s never going to make it. He’s just utterly awful as a human being, and the next 90 minutes will be him trying and failing.

After dossing at the home of some older rich friends, Davis accidentally lets their cat out and is then forced to carry it round New York. Ironically, it’s the one thing he doesn’t try to take: Llewyn sees the world as constantly owing him something. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan sparkle as his friends Jim and Jean, their own duo act going places while Llewyn moulders away.

Llewyn can’t, or won’t, play the game: as someone points out later, he needs a partner to take the edge off him, and, as Jean points out, Llewyn won’t find anyone else. Part of the exquisite agony of this film is watching him burning bridges at every turn, so wrapped up in worry, self-belief and self-pity that he can’t see that he’s the one throwing his future away.

When kindly Jim gets him a session gig, Llewyn rubbishes the song, which it turns out Jim wrote. Later, auditioning for a Chicago club owner, he sings an obscure song about Lady Jane Grey rather than a hit. It’s beautiful, but it’s a clueless and selfish act. Llewyn is loyal to his art. It’s just a shame his art doesn’t care as much about him.

The Coens balance Davis well. On the one hand, he’s a colossal downer, but at the same time, you can see why he’s so unbearable. What feels like weeks in Llewyn’s life turns out to be only a couple of days.

When Jean shouts at him, at length, in a park, you will cheer her on like a frontrunner in the Grand National. But when they all sing – and kudos to the Coens for letting each song run through in full – you could forgive these guys anything.

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