Inside Llewyn Davis (London Film Festival 2013)
There’s a quick flash of a poster for a Disney film, The Incredible Journey: the story of a cat and two dogs who traverse “across 200 perilous miles of Canadian wilderness!” It’s also a counterpoint for the unheralded musician Llewyn Davis, whose possessions amount to a guitar and an unwanted cat. Joel and Ethan Coen joyfully dovetail into New York’s folk scene with Inside Llewyn Davis; the titular character, expertly brought to grumpy life by Oscar Isaac, hitchhikes and sofa crashes for miles – but, unlike the three fictional pets, he would hardly call it an incredible journey.
The Incredible Journey could be a fitting description for the Coen brothers' career, but it’s likelt their memoir would hold a more external title that lets the films do the talking. Llewyn, however, must settle for his own Inside... story, given the lack of attention he receives for his one-man acoustic act.The spotlight is instead on novelty tunes like “Please Mr Kennedy” (imagine a folky “Call Me Maybe”) and harmonising bands – one notable example has Justin Timberlake strumming a guitar to accompany vocalist Carey Mulligan.
Llewyn, while not going electric, stubbornly sticks to his solo act and playing old numbers that richly echo the room; Isaac’s voice is indeed very soulful. However, other singers’ lyrics are unable to convey Llewyn’s own life: slumming it on other people’s sofas, unsure of how to pay for the next meal. Most hurtful is his floundering career, just short of a breakout moment that doesn’t include “outer space” as a catchy mantra.
The Coens diligently fill Inside Llewyn Davis with their traditional wide-eyed shots and specific dialogue, right down to Llewyn’s consistent bad luck; the disrespected writer in Barton Fink springs to mind, with bureaucracy carefully spread across New York through braying audience members and quarrelsome neighbours.
However, despite a soundtrack that trumps I’m Not There, the Coens present an anti-folk world – as Llewyn expresses himself, he both hates and loves the genre. When John Goodman, as a jazz musician, humorously mocks the movement, he complains that the capo-dependant scene is too repetitive with G-major and C-major chords.
Llewyn also faces serial loneliness, which isn’t helped by unreceptive crowds and an ex-girlfriend who remarks, “I should have had you wear double condoms... You should be wearing condom on condom, and then wrap it in electrical tape.” Llewyn’s best friend, strangely, is a cat with a dubious identity; the feline is also one of the great animal performances of our time, and is bound to inspire a suffocating number of YouTube compilations, gifs and Buzzfeed features.
It’s lonely at the bottom of the music chain, largely from Llewyn’s inflated self-importance, leaving him frequently ignored – the ultimate tragedy for any folk singer’s ego. Llewyn is informed by industry insiders that he lacks the extra oomph to make him profitable. Who could such a figure be? There’s a Bob Dylan allusion, but it also describes the Coens themselves: they transform a simple story into an illustrious, philosophical study of unavoidable failure, complete with idiosyncratic trademarks.
In a recurring motif, a cat moves from home to home, like Llewyn, with its own free will, as a sort of Inside Mewing Davis. That cat may be following the example of The Incredible Journey, fluttering between adventure and homeward bound glory; Llewyn can’t even open the door.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the London Film Festival’s Centrepiece Gala screening. More information can be found here.
United States of America
105 mins approx
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen