The Coens’ Llewyn Davis is unsympathetic but excellent

Coen brothers successfully capture the early-60s folk scene in latest film

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The Coen brothers’ latest work Inside Llewyn Davis successfully attempts to bring to life the folk-music revivalist movement of the early 1960s that was most famously centered in New York’s Greenwich Village.

The Coens have cited the iconic cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as an inspiration for the film’s look and feel of a bitter East Coast winter, presumably offset by the cool dignity of bohemia. With Inside Llewyn Davis, they have captured the essence of that image and made a full-length feature film that is drenched in it.

There is one important difference between that famous picture and Inside Llewyn Davis, however. The aforementioned album cover is an incredibly sweet portrait of love flourishing among youthful and penniless idealists, as a pre-fame Dylan is being held tightly and adoringly by his girlfriend at the time, poet Suze Rotolo; whereas the character of Dylan-esque folksinger Llewyn Davis is perpetually and defiantly alone. And he deserves to be. Because Llewyn Davis is kind of a piece of garbage.

We quickly learn of his reliance on the overextended and exploited goodwill of others for lodging and sustenance. He loses his friend’s cat. There’s a good chance he’s gotten another friend’s girlfriend pregnant. He’s defensive and verbally abusive in almost any conversation. And his incredibly defeated, cynical view towards everything in his life makes him generally unpleasant to be around.

How does an audience end up caring about such an unlikable protagonist? It’s hard to say, but somehow Inside Llewyn Davis manages to pull it off. You will find yourself empathizing with Davis. It rather unexpectedly ends up being a story about how people deal with death.

There’s an almost Biblical kind of morality to Joel and Ethan Coen’s films – sinners never prosper, and Davis definitely qualifies. Their famously unique episodic approach to storytelling is present in the film, putting Davis through one seemingly meaningless trial after another only to have him end up in the same place we first met him.

Just like every Coen brothers movie, some might find the point of it fairly inscrutable, but that in itself is missing the point. Inside Llewyn Davis is a period film, but rather than portraying the time, place and people with a whitewashed reverence, it humanizes it.

My only – admittedly small – gripe with the film: its sparklingly saccharine soundtrack, which runs a little too Mumford and Sons-y for my taste, not to mention the inherent anachronism of so many soft singing voices in a time where more often than not artists were quite literally shouting to be heard in often mic-less clubs. But of course, that’s just historical nitpicking.

The Coen brothers have hardly ever made a movie that is much less than excellent, and Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception.


Bob Dylan, Coen Brothers, Film Review, Llewyn Davis

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