Movie review – Poor boy: A folk tale, Coen style

2014-02-09 14:00

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A misadventure through seven days in a musician’s life has all the hallmarks you’d expect from a Coen brothers’ creation, writes Gayle Edmunds

Inside Llewyn Davis

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake

Joel and Ethan Coen’s exploration of a week in the life of a struggling folk singer in 1960s New York becomes an odyssey of missteps for the hapless protagonist, Llewyn Davis.

Like so many Coen brothers films, Davis’ obstacle-riddled life is populated by a plethora of off-centre characters and absurdities. Also, like many of their films, Davis has lessons to learn and uneasy experiences to endure, most of which are cloaked in the darkest of humour.

The beginnings of a bad week are when Davis leaves the house of a friend on whose couch he’s been crashing (to go crash on another friend’s couch) and the cat gets out. The ginger cat is the Coen brothers’ equivalent of the metaphorical monkey on Davis’ back – it also makes for some classic scenes of the singer struggling through the icy New York winter, a guitar in one hand a wiggling cat in the other.

Oscar Isaac, who was nominated for a Golden Globe, is superb as the hapless Davis, and he begins his screen time with an exquisitely melancholic version of Hang Me, Oh Hang Me. The palette of the film echoes the mood in smoky hues of blue, and throughout, Davis believes himself to be the poor boy of the song. Though the audience might agree at first, Davis soon proves himself to be the author of many of his own misfortunes.

Carey Mulligan – who sings beautifully – is a fellow folk singer in a love-hate relationship with Llewyn. She, along with her husband Jim (played with “aw-shucks” charm by Justin Timberlake) are more interested in riding the cresting wave of folk’s popularity to a house in the suburbs and a comfortable life.

The more unpleasant his life becomes, the more Davis resents his more successful friends for this desire, calling them “square careerists”. F Murray Abraham comes along for the ride of Davis’ life as a record producer who tells Davis the truth about his limited talents; and John Goodman (a regular collaborator with the Coens) is easily the most odious man on the planet as an old jazzman, who gets his just desserts and a ginger cat.

Inside Llewyn Davis might sound like a wrist-slitter, but in the experienced hands of the guys who made Fargo; The Big Lebowski; No Country For Old Men; and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? the story becomes so much more than one man’s tough breaks. The directors capture the time and place so flawlessly, the New York music scene comes alive around Davis’ surreal life.

This might not be the instant classic that Fargo or The Big Lebowski is, but it has a soundtrack as memorable as Oh Brother, and a cast who all give great performances.

The music is created under the watchful eye of T-Bone Burnett, who was also at the helm for the Oscar winners Oh Brother, Cold Mountain and Walk The Line. Those who love a little folk music will thoroughly enjoy this; and, if you’re like me, a fast Coen brothers fan, you’ll want to join them on this visit to the folk music scene in 1960s New York.

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