Inside Llewyn Davis: fiddles and riddles

American myth-making or private joke? As so often with the Coens, this folk tale is both.

29th January 2014, Dalston Rio

On a winter’s night in East London, beards and cable-knit sweaters in the audience mirrored those in 1961 Greenwich Village — and when members of the cast of Girls turned up on screen, it was fun to speculate on parallels between the Coen brothers’ portrait of a rootless singer of the New York folk scene and the sofa-surfing angst and thrift-store chic of Lena Dunham’s contemporary NYC. But I don’t really believe the Coens set out to record the origin of hipsters.

No, Inside Llewyn Davis finds them once again in myth-making mood, mixing the capital-C classics with an iconic moment in American pop culture, period detail with dreamlike imagery, and of course setting it to a literate and cool soundtrack. Low-key and elusive, it’s more Barton Fink than O Brother Where Art Thou — though it has in common with both a surreal turn from John Goodman, appearing to have wandered in from a different film entirely.

Goodman, playing a rumbling, wasted jazzman, dominates the middle and best part of the film, a weird snowbound road trip to Chicago which cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel cuts loose from the rest and sets adrift in a dazzling whiteout. Prior to this point we’ve been following the hapless Llewyn’s hard luck story — dead partner, pregnant ex, no digs, no dough, lost cat — and if movies have taught us anything, it’s that this trip will be his escape, his trial, his transformation. It isn’t. The elliptical narrative sucks him back down to earth and dumps him exactly where he started. There’s no catharsis. It’s a very different kind of music film — the story of the nearly man, the guy who was on stage just before the guy who made it big and changed everything.

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn gives this whingeing, irresponsible and passive lead a hangdog appeal, but he needs a moral context that doesn’t materialise — the waspish and exasperated ex, played by Carey Mulligan, is probably meant to play that part but is underwritten and a shade too mean in this very male film. But like every Coen brothers picture, Inside Llewyn Davis has more than its fair share of delights. There are hilarious and haunting musical numbers, moments of sinister madness, memorable characters — and that significant cat, blazing ginger across the film’s cool blue look, pulling the bewildered Llewyn in his (or her?) wake. But signifying what? If it was a riddle, it stumped me.

Originally published at

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