Inside Llewyn Davis

Dec 18, 2013

The Coen brothers have another memorable loner if just a tad too dark.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Grade: B+

Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Oscar Isaac (The Bourne Legacy), Carey Mulligan (The Great Gatsby)

Rating: R

Runtime: 105 min.

by John DeSando

"...And what, just exist?" Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac)

Folk singing in 1961 was far preferable to working the unromantic Merchant Marine, to which the eponymous hero of Llewyn Davis might have to return at the suggestion of his sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles) and for his lack of success. The Coens have again crafted a tale of a hero not going anywhere but trudging along waiting for something to happen (think Libowski journeying for a carpet).

Llewyn sings gallows songs in smoky coffeehouses (one is the real Gate of Horn, which also is a reference to one of Penelope’s comments in the Odyssey) and finds a place to crash at night, sometimes with a friend and his wife, whom Llewyn may have impregnated. Along the way he’s inadvertently responsible for a savvy orange cat named Ulysses, either a symbol of our hero’s wanderings to get home or of Holly Golightly’s “Cat” in need of a home.

The film is aimless itself, mostly a pastiche of possibilities for a singer who is good but lacking a spark to take him to the Bob Dylan level, or even remotely to that peak. He’s not even smart enough to forsake a quick pay for future royalties from a song he helped produce, Please, Mr. Kennedy.

The Coens have set the gloomy scene with a grey mise en scene evoking the faded albums and hopes beautifully lensed by Roger Deakins’ substitute, Bruno Debonnel (Deakins was doing Skyfall at the time). While Llewyn’s songs are very much in the folk tradition, they do nothing to relieve the despair.

Coen Bros fans must see Inside Llewyn Davis regardless of its despair. It evokes an era with gorgeous, somber photography and an eponymous hero in the vein of Libowski or O’Brother. 

In all, the film is a Homeric demythologizing of an age when Jack Kennedy was still alive and hope had not yet been checked. The film’s ending with the same violent beginning presages the dismal cycle of loss that is Llewyn’s lot and ours.

We have been inside Llewyn Davis and it’s not all that pretty.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at Contact him at