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Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, 2013)

Over twenty years ago the Coen Brothers’ created Barton Fink, a film in which its titular character is at times his own worse enemy, unable to see that it is himself that prohibits him from success, unwilling to compromise and accept help from those around him.

Here, Oscar Isaac’s lead character shares a lot in common with John Turturro’s as he attempts to become a folk singing success in 1961 New York. Llewyn Davis (I delightful Welsh name, I must add) is not a particularly likeable or sympathetic character, he is uncaring of those around him and does not see the pain and suffering he causes for others: he impregnates his friend’s partner and without hesitation offers an abortion, he carelessly loses another friends cat, and he rudely insults other artists for a variety of reasons.

Recovering from the death of his former partner, Llewyn Davis stubbornness and refusal to conform to the changing musical landscape around him ultimately holds him back from achieving success. In one of the beginning scenes a man sits beside him in a bar, praising his friends’ performance, Isaac sits there with a look of disgust,to him, this is not good music, and as we soon begin to learn: it is either his way or no way.

In another scene he agrees to take part in a musical piece with two other men, he initially mocks the writing of the song before he realises that it his is co-singer and friend who is the writer. He then decides to take an up front payment in order to fund the abortion of this same man’s wife’s unborn child, as opposed to receiving any future royalties. His past dismissal for the concerns of others once again proves to be a hindrance to his career.

Llewyn Davis’ disdain for others is summed up in a scene with his sister when he describes other people simply as those who ‘exist’. The other characters in this movie are shown in such a way in that we see them through Llewyn Davis’ eyes; he is a selfish man, unable to see the good in those around him. Justin Timberlake’s character is a more successful musician whose music whilst not folk music like Llewyn’s, is certainly more successful and profitable, he also has a wife and home unlike Llewyn. Then we have the characters portrayed by John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund, two talented musicians who are rather unpleasant and insulting towards Llewyn (at least Goodman’s character), themselves in a way representing wasted talents, unlikely to make it because of different problems, although Llewyn fails to recognise what they are trying to tell him, reacting angrily to their criticism of folk music.

The film is bleak and depressing at times, it’s a very moody film which will put off some viewers. But most of the Coen Brothers’ films are similar in the way they deal with the little man, the underdog, and at times with pessimistic fates. In No Country for Old Men we have a character that although faced with a number of forces against him, is ultimately responsible for his own downfall through his stubbornness and insistence that he will win by going his own way. The cinematography is superb in capturing the feel of Llewyn’s daunting journey throughout the film; it has a wonderful blue, frosty feel to it. The film probably has the best soundtrack of the year too, with all the music – bar the final song from a voice you might just recognise – recorded live by the actors themselves. Then there is the usual Coen Brothers’ dark humour, although at times nasty, you can not help but laugh at the human side of frustration that shows in both Llewyn Davis’ actions and dialogue.

The last scene in particular is a brilliant piece of writing, it replicates what we are shown at the start, but this time we get added context and have a full understanding of Llewyn Davis’ character, we know what exactly is happening and can easily accept why.

The Coen Brothers have made many great films, and this is right up there at the very top, it might just be their greatest and most honest human study, it’s a film that manages to be both beautiful and tragic, and you can not help but really feel the journey that Llewyn Davis’ goes on. My favourite film of 2013 so far.

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