Film review of the 1960’s American folk-scene drama-comedy directed by the Cohen brothers and starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and John Goodman.
Directors: Ethan Cohen, Joel Cohen.
Cast & credits
Producers: Ethan Cohen, Joel Cohen, Scott Rudin.
Writers: Ethan Cohen, Joel Cohen.
Camera: Bruno Delbonnel.
Music: Various artists.
Sets: Jess Gonchor.
Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garret Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, Stark Sands, Adam Driver, Max Casella, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett.
Llewyn Davis (Isaac) is a talented and good, if not great, singer-songwriter and musician on the burgeoning American folk music scene in Greenwich, New York in the 1950’s. He is also arrogant, difficult to deal with, objectionable and sleeps around. such as with Jean (Mulligan), the girlfriend of his more talented if bland peer Jim (Timberlake). On the cusp of a big break that seems too far away, Davis is facing a crossroads in his life, whether to continue with the struggle to become a successful music artist, or return to a life of reliably paid drudgery in the merchant navy.
Only the Cohen brothers could conjure up such an involving, almost personal, account of the struggling artist as a young man film set within a unique and time-specific place as Greenwich Village’s early folk music scene of the 1950’s. One can almost imagine either one of them in Davis’ place, back in the early eighties, living on the breadline and hawking their first feature film scrip Blood Simple to financial backers and distributors.
Isaac, a relative unknown up until this film, has fun as the ultimate bitchy heckler, his own worse critic. Davis is a born couch surfer, leaching off the otherwise good people about him, obnoxious and outspoken, but also a music purist who love his art so much he is aggrieved at the talentless wannabes who inveigle the music circuit. He is a confident player and this is a difficult role to nail, but still he leads a great ensemble cast in what is essentially a one-man film with cameos from more famous actors.
If he ever gets bored with acting, Isaac can always switch to singing as his own voice was recorded live and used in the film, along with Mulligan, Driver and of course Timberlake.
It is fortuitous casting for this film that they secured Timberlake’s services, seeing as each of his own albums has secured millions of sales. His sweet and soulful turn here is cut short only by its duration in the script.
Although no individual performance is without merit, there are a handful deserving of special mention.
Mulligan is particularly prickly and angry as Davis’ nemesis-cum-former-one-night-stand, showing that her singing voice has come on leaps and bounds since that finger-nails-down-a-blackboard performance in Shame (2011).
Goodman is a phlegmatic and opinionated musician accompanying Davis to Chicago with monosyllabic Hedlund who succumbs to a heroin overdose in a public toilet.
Abraham too scores in an almost wordless but memorable turn as a possible employer of Davis’ talents, who listens hypnotically to Davis but none the less turns him down at his hour of need.
Much has been written of the symbolism that the cat he is looking after represents. It’s a cute image, the depressed struggling artist out in the cold with the well-fed and happy puss under his arm, but as Davis wanders restlessly between various homes, a rootless soul, the cat goes missing for stretches at a time, stressing Llewyn out and testing him, rather like he does to those around him, so there are parallels to the human character, who also returns home in the end.
Oscar himself goes on an odyssey during this film, as in other Cohen brothers films (most notably O Brother, Where Art Tho?, 2000), from New York, to Chicago and New Jersey, he meets a variety of creatures who test his resolve.
Although mostly drama, there are some sublime comic moments that permeate the film. The recording session at Columbia studios in which purist Davis comes face to face with the experimental sounds that will challenge and change his beloved music, is a delight. Seeing his brusque, critical confidence out-sung and out of place with ad-libbing, alien sounds raise a few smiles.
After slamming the mother of his dead former music partner for trying to sing with him on one of her son’s tracks, she realises the cat he has returned is the wrong one. “Where’s its scrotum, Llewyn?” is the stand-out line of dialogue from the film.
The choice of colour palate and lighting in this film is arresting. From the opening club scene, with the jolting separation of light (artist) from dark (audience) and a clear delineation of this world and the bright, fluorescent evil outside there is full kudos to cinematographer Delbonnel for working with the Cohen’s so cohesive to create this inner, celluloid place. The colour is almost bleached out for the Greenwich scenes, but bright and fuzzy when in the outside world, the warm browns, oranges and blacks of the folk music scene suddenly erupting into harsh reds and yellows.
The ending of the film very cinematically leaves open the circular narrative of the film. As an audience we wonder what Davis will do with no money, no chance of entering the merchant navy without borrowing money to secure his credentials and with his music success hanging in the balance.
As a total aside, there were some interesting knitwear options just about to come into fashion that could form another, albeit less musical, movie.
The title of the film, by the way, comes from the title of Davis’ failed first solo album.