There Is Something Missing Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers are well-known as a directorial force to be reckoned with, and their latest big screen offering is no exception.

The Coen Brothers are well-known as a directorial force to be reckoned with, and their latest big screen offering is no exception. From Fargo to True Grit, there are consistent themes in the brothers’ work which are also present in Llewyn – namely, traveling and disillusionment tempered by their trademark acerbic wit.

But their new release owes a little more to Homer, Kerouac and Bob Dylan than any of their work that’s gone before. And this tale of a once-successful folk musician, trying to find his place in 1960s Greenwich Village following the suicide of his singing partner, is steeped in reasons to watch.

Even so, long after the film had finished I was left with an irritating, nagging sensation that something here was missing.

Less than the sum of its parts 

1960s America is enchantingly recreated. The Coen sense of humour permeates even the bleakest scene, and the music, performed live by the remarkable cast, is so good I downloaded the soundtrack the same day. 

The plethora of phenomenal constituent parts that make up Inside Llewyn Davis should combine to produce a grade-A film which far surpasses most of what’s gone before, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something vital just wasn’t there. 

The production is painfully bleak and side-achingly funny in equal measure. There’s a childish innocence to Llewyn, performed exquisitely by Oscar Isaac, that somehow isn’t eroded by his reliance on alcohol, cigarettes and generally being an arsehole to most of the people he comes across. 

Similarly, Carey Mulligan’s supporting role as the sweet but ballsy Jean is strewn with one-liners to make an audience gasp, laugh, and well-up in sympathy. John Goodman as a disabled drug user with a brutal tongue and categorically no redeeming features also deserves a special mention as someone who makes Llewyn a thoroughly watchable, and completely worthwhile, cinema viewing.

Despite such acclaim-worthy actors, however, arguably the film is stolen by the cameo role of a traveling ginger tomcat, aptly named Ulysses. This, I promise you, is not an insult to the acting talent of any of those involved.

More, it’s a nod to the excellent way the Coen’s have managed to turn a furry ginger feline into a returning character to confuse, frustrate, and tug at the protagonist’s heartstrings. 

I could pretend that I didn’t laugh at the antics of this hobo-like animal, but then I’d also have to lie and tell you that I didn’t recoil when a similar cat ran in front of Llewyn’s car. I’m afraid the memory still makes me wince.

The road goes ever on

It may be, that what I believe was missing from Llewyn is the very resolution that an audience hopes for, but in a supreme act of realist-sadism, the Coen brothers fail to provide.

Llewyn, the forlorn but talented folk singer is, quite frankly, a hopeless and resonant example of the sickness of frustrated ambitions and unrealised dreams. As the Chicago music mogul tells him following a particularly moving acoustic performance: “I don’t think there’s any money in this.”

In the end, perhaps, the only problem with this film is its adherence to reality. Talent will not, and in this case does not, always mean success. It even less often means money.

And so, for Llewyn, the road goes ever on and on, and as he exits the folk bar for the last time, a young whipper-snapper by the name of Bob Dylan takes to the stage. Does this mean the end of our hero’s so-far wasted ambitions, or will Dylan usher in a new market for the unprofitable folk genre?

The Coen Brothers make sure that we’ll never know. And that, most probably, is the reason Inside Llewyn Davis has nagged at me ever since.

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