Russell Baillie

Russell Baillie is the Herald’s entertainment editor

Movie review: Inside Llewyn Davis

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Oscar Isaac's singing and playing is the genuine article and his acting carries the film terrifically throughout.
Oscar Isaac's singing and playing is the genuine article and his acting carries the film terrifically throughout.

Yes, it is another Coen Brothers movie - one where the pair are back to their own devices with an original script. In past years they've leaned either towards books, with No Country For Old Men, or remakes such as True Grit.

The latter was the pair doing a Western. They've long had a habit of reshaping genres to their own oddball liking, whether it's been spy movies (Burn After Reading), screwball comedy (Intolerable Cruelty), noir (The Man Who Wasn't There), or gangster films (Miller's Crossing).

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Inside Llewyn Davis might, like their 1930s southern jailbreak caper O Brother, Where Art Thou? have quite a bit of music in it. But it sure ain't a musical.

And it might be yet another Coens movie about yet another man of constant sorrow. That's struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis, who just can't seem to get a break as he traverses 1961 New York on the eve of the Dylan-led folk boom.

But despite being a film about a self-important tortured artist slowly realising he's an also-ran in an earnest musical scene, and despite it doing some very blackly funny Coenesque things - such as John Goodman's eccentric turn as a folk-intolerant junkie jazzman - and despite its constantly chilly grey setting, Inside Llewyn Davis still feels like one of the brothers' most touching films.

Much of that's to do with the lead performance of Oscar Isaac, whose singing and playing is the genuine article and whose acting carries the film terrifically throughout.

His character is loosely based on folk-singer Dave Van Ronk, whose profile didn't stray far from the confines of the Greenwich Village scene in which he was a figurehead.

There are amusing allusions to music history aplenty whether it's Davis' Welsh name in a world where that Jewish ex-Minnesota guy (as the Coens are) Robert Zimmerman renamed himself after Welsh bard Dylan Thomas.

Or when Llewyn pitches himself to visit folk impresario Bud Grossman - a thinly disguised depiction of Dylan's manager Albert Grossman - who tells the singer-songwriter after he plays him a song: "I don't see a lot of money here."

But the historical references are part of a vivid depiction of New York 1961. The visual tone and design of the film doesn't just reference the snowy street-scene album cover photo of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, it's as if the whole film has stepped through its looking-glass. And we eventually get to see Bob himself.

It's true that following Davis through that world doesn't have a lot of plot points. He's bumbling through, sleeping on couches, trying to find cash so he can pay for an abortion for Jean (Carey Mulligan) a fellow folkie who's not the first girl he's knocked up, and generally winding up the few people who care for him, including the well-meaning academic couple who have adopted him for a bit of bohemian colour in their lives and whose cat he accidentally kidnaps.

You will likely end up caring more for the fate of the ginger tabby than the guy carrying it around town. But the way Davis is so tellingly drawn by the writing and played by Isaac makes him compelling - he's the prick in the Cupid's arrow in what is, after O Brother, the Coens' second great Valentine to folk music, albeit in a minor key. It's a bleak tale of a less-than-loveable loser. But the combined effect of songs, lead performance and period detail make it one of the best, most heartfelt Coen movies yet.


Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
Director: Ethan Coen
Rating: M (offensive language)
Running time: 105 mins
Verdict: Folk, that's really good

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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