Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac and cat in Inside Llewyn Davis


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



30 June


Dave Van Ronk born, 1936

On this day in 1936, one of the great nearly men of popular music was born, in Brooklyn, New York, USA, into a Catholic family who identified as Irish. Dave Van Ronk was singing in a barbershop quartet by the age of 13 but left school early to play music, hang around in Manhattan and, eventually, ship out with the Merchant Marine. He played jazz before straying upon blues, and built up a small following as one of the few white men working in the genre. And from there broadened out into folk. As the folk revival of the late 1950s gathered pace, Dave almost became part of a folk trio, which would have been called Peter, Dave and Mary. But the gig instead went to Noel Paul Stookey, and so Peter, Paul and Mary it was. Instead Dave wrote songs and sang in Greenwich Village; he became the figurehead of the scene, his syncopated finger-picking style and big bearish personality gaining him many admirers. Dave “was king of the street, he reigned supreme” as Bob Dylan later put it. However, in spite of 20 albums and five decades of performing, few people outside of the aficionados ever got to hear of Dave Van Ronk. This was partly because he wouldn’t fly, couldn’t drive, disliked leaving Greenwich Village. But it was also simple bad luck – he did a beautiful, crack-voiced version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, which should have been a hit, except that Judy Collins beat him to it. And then, suddenly, the folk moment was over and the Tom Paxtons and Ralph McTells and Dave Van Ronks had to content themselves with driving on the back roads of success. Well at least he had talent, and did it his way.




Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, dir: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)

The Coen brothers borrow the title of the 1964 album Inside Dave Van Ronk to tell the story of another nearly man, the fictional Llewyn Davis. Davis is not Van Ronk, and it’s pointless drawing comparisons between the two. Because Llewyn Davis is so clearly a Coen man. In other words, someone who’s doing what he thinks is his best but it isn’t really working for him. “Everything you touch turns to shit. Like King Midas’s idiot brother,” says Davis’s ex squeeze (Carey Mulligan, all over that Joan Baez look and attitude). We’re in Greenwich Village, early 1960s, folk music riding high, the clubs full of nice middle class kids in chunky sweaters, either on the stage or in the audience, while out in the wider world of music Llewyn Davis is trying to make a go of it.
The cat. We have to mention the cat, which Davis accidentally lets out of the apartment of the people he’s staying at, then chases down the road, then catches, then takes home to look after for a few days, because he can’t get back into the apartment now that the door has clicked shut behind him. And by “home” he means the couch of another long-suffering “friend”.

The strength of this film comes from its highly charged individual scenes – Davis abusing the hospitality of the Upper East Siders who have been bending over backwards to help the struggling artist; Davis being refused an advance by his ancient agent; on the road with a derisive heroin-addicted jazzman (John Goodman, nice); being told at the famous Gate of Horn club that he hasn’t got what it takes (and after singing his heart out too). And on it goes, heartbreak in instalments, to a lovely soundtrack, in venues that look lifted straight off the cover of Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album.

The Coens have introduced us to Davis just as he’s obviously run out of time, credit at the goodwill bank of his various friends, couches to kip on. Something has to give. The songs Oscar Isaac tenderly sings are Dave Van Ronk’s. And they’re beautiful songs, though not quite “hooky” enough to make it. Davis isn’t “hooky” enough either, is chasing fame (or even just a living) the way he’s chasing the cat – elusive, indifferent – which actually turns out to be the wrong cat entirely.

As to whether the Coens are offering an explanation for Davis’s status as a nearly man, I’m not sure they are. There are suggestions that maybe Davis wants the prize for the wrong reason – money, rather than art – but only the vaguest hints. Instead the Coens seem intent on building a sustained mood piece in a minor key, highly polished, terribly sad. They are unusually fair to the music, make no snide digs at well brought up Americans singing in odd approximations of British folk accents, or of white kids who want to be black. And at the end, as Davis packs up his guitar having sung yet another night at the club he’s inhabited like a bad smell, and as he wanders outside into the back alley, the next act is announced. It’s Bob Dylan, we hear. But we don’t see. Success is not what Inside Llewyn Davis is about.



Why Watch?


  • Oscar Isaac’s haunted performance
  • The music, including Dave Van Ronk’s songs
  • So many great performances – including Carey Mulligan, F Murray Abraham,
  • Bruno Delbonnel’s era-evoking cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Inside Llewyn Davis – Watch it now at Amazon





26 May 2014-05-26

Oscar Isaac sings in Inside Llewyn Davis


Out in the UK This Week


Inside Llewyn Davis (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The Coen brothers specialise in films about absence or lack – The Man Who Wasn’t There being the most obvious exemplar. Inside Llewyn Davis is about a folk singer on the Greenwich Village circuit just before Bob Dylan turned up and electrified – joke intended – the scene. It  stars the hitherto obscure Oscar Isaac as the struggling singer who just lacks that last, magical quarter of an inch of whatever it is that makes an artist break through. It’s heartbreak in slo-mo, in other words, and to some extent it’s unwatchable, if you find beautifully crafted, brilliantly acted films unwatchable. Why doesn’t Llewyn Davis make it? There’s really no point in me saying what I think the answer is, since that’s the knot the film worries away at. As it does so, there’s Carey Mulligan as a boho folkie revealing yet another side to her talent, the mellifluous pipes of Davis, bringing to life the songs of Dave Van Ronk, on whose experience the film is based. And there’s the mis en scene of the Coens, the look of New York in the early 1960s looking like it was lifted straight off the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album. And isn’t that a sly casting choice, getting F Murray Abraham, Salieri to Tom Hulce’s Mozart in Amadeus, to play the role of the man who tells Isaac he just isn’t good enough? A sorrowful moment in a film that’s essentially one awful disappointment after another, in a journey towards oblivion.

Inside Llewyn Davis – at Amazon




Willow Creek (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

I don’t want to watch any more found footage films, especially one that seems to be explicitly out in the Blair Witch woods. However, having seen Willow Creek, about a couple who go in search of Bigfoot – him an enthusiastic wannabe TV presenter (hence the camera), her more sceptical – I have to say that director Bobcat Goldthwait has managed to squeeze a last smidgeon of toothsome entertainment out of the tube. He’s also obviously seen Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, and noticed that watching people walking towards their doom is grimly fascinating. Goldthwait also adds in a bit of verity by having his actors, Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson, actually posing as real people making their own real film about Bigfoot. Either that or the interviews with people en route to the couple’s appointment with fear are so well acted it’s uncanny. Verdict: nothing new to see here, but that doesn’t mean Willow Creek isn’t scary.

Willow Creek – at Amazon




8 Minutes Idle (Luxin, cert 15, DVD)

Coming across as a lo-fi Richard Curtis rom-com, except Curtis doesn’t do jokes involving semen-filled condoms, 8 Minutes Idle is a funny and incredibly likeable British film set in a call centre, where browbeaten co-workers flirt with each other to pass the time when they’re steering hapless callers up one blind alley after another. Tom Hughes is its hero, a shiftless and homeless minimum wager secretly sleeping in the office and trying to make a move on the office hottie (Ophelia Lovibond), something she might, or might not, welcome. The film feels like it’s written by people who actually have worked in a call centre, are young, have working hormones and understand that taking the odd drug isn’t a one-way ticket to hell. And the casting is really very good – Antonia Thomas as a saucy, spunky co-worker, Montserrat Lombard as the sexually predatory boss, only a couple of years older than the others but it’s a crucial couple of years. And in the background, as a running gag, the sound of callers constantly losing their rag because their needs are not being serviced. Short and sweet.

8 Minutes Idle – at Amazon




August: Osage County (EV, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Tracy Letts wrote Killer Joe – a lunge into Tennessee Williams territory. And he’s cranking out more, though less successful, melodrama with this overcooked offering which he also directed. Look at the cast. Meryl Streep as the dying matriarch, Sam Shepard as her husband, Julia Roberts and Julianne Nicholson as daughters, Benedict Cumberbatch as a cousin, Abigail Breslin as a grand-daughter, Chris Cooper as a brother in law. If I go on (Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, the exquisite Margo Martindale) it’s only to demonstrate that people obviously think Letts is a thing. I’m not so sure. This is an exercise in mad overacting by nearly all concerned. Streep is funny and about as good as it’s possible to be, playing a vicious old hag presiding over a weekend of truth and lies as the family gathers to say goodbye to dear old Dad (Shepard, in it for less than five minutes) after he kills himself. Following close behind is Martindale, as her semi-stoked sister, and Julia Roberts brings a touch of humanity to the role of the caring sister who acts as our go-between. I won’t go into the plot, which is needless to say all about forbidden relationships, as Tennessee Williams dramas tend to be, but it centres on Cumberbatch, who is about as terrible in this as I’ve ever seen him. Though otherwise there isn’t much for the men in this drama to do apart from sit back and watch the fur fly and the chicken fry.

August: Osage County – at Amazon




The Hidden Face (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

Going all the way back to the original gothic novels – locked rooms, mad women in attics and moody men striding about purposefully – The Hidden Face is a good looking Spanish horror set in Bogota, Colombia, where a Byronically highly strung orchestral conductor (Quim Gutiérrez) is having a lively sex life with his attractive new girlfriend (Martina García). What happened to the previous one though? She ran off, according to a video message she left behind. Though the police are not convinced. And the new girlfriend is beginning to wonder too. Thunder and lighting crash at all the right times, the ladies take off their clothes attractively and the Nazis make a discreet appearance to add another layer of menace in this entirely satisfying piece of densely plotted entertainment that takes the viewer up, over, under, through and out, never short-changing, staying true to character and to genre expectations.

The Hidden Face – at Amazon




Nashville (Eureka, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

It was never described in these terms when it was first released in 1975, but Nashville is a musical. Robert Altman says as much in one of the two interviews that accompany the remaster of this masterpiece, a multi-stranded affair about country stars converging on Nashville, where the broken dreams of the 1960s are about to meet embryonic Reagan-era politics. If you’ve ever wondered whether Lili Tomlin or Henry Gibson or Keith Carradine had actually been in a good film, here’s your proof, Tomlin as the careworn wife of bumptious political hick Ned Beatty hovering on the edge of an affair with a relentless womaniser (Carradine), while a bewigged has-been (Gibson) gentles towards the exit a career based on twangy patriotic tearjerkers. Some of the singing is terrible, not always because it’s meant to be, but the bands playing behind the singers are excellent, and Altman’s technique – so many stories, so much layering of sound – is about as polished as it would ever be. I’d forgotten Jeff Goldblum was in Nashville, as a hippie on a chopper trike, and how good Geraldine Chaplin was as the dreadful women “from the BBC” trying to interview one person while keeping an eye out for anyone more famous. With cameos from blur-on stars Elliott Gould and Julie Christie as themselves, Nashville has a time-capsule quality to it now. Shot just before America celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, we’re in a world before Aids, terrorism and today’s gigantic disparities in wealth, when the American dream seemed more attainable, more credible, and yet, in Altman’s eyes at least, still worth interrogating.

Nashville – at Amazon




Squatters (Sony, cert 18, DVD/digital)

Kelly and Jonas, a pair of street dwelling skanks (Thomas Dekker and Gabriella Wilde) break into the home of a wealthy couple (Richard Dreyfuss, Nancy Travis) who have gone on holiday. The duo reinvent themselves entirely, hacking off their matted hair, easing themselves into borrowed clothes, nipping into the garage to take the Porsche out for a spin. It cannot last, of course, and when the house’s real owners come back… actually, when the house’s real owners come back, the film lurches from the entirely improbable to the majorly ludicrous. The writing is to blame – “You’re shit, Kelly. You’re trash, just like me,” shouts Jonas, in one of the film’s crappier moments of unwitting lip-quivering melodrama, a line that is trying to suggest that Squatters is a meditation on the difficulty of escaping one’s past, when neither Dekker nor Wilde ever looked like hobos in the first place. On the upside, this is a glossy, good looking film, Wilde acts Dekker and his lovely dark eyelashes into a corner, and it’s nice to see Richard Dreyfuss on screen again. Last time I saw him was in a cameo in Piranha, where he was having some fun at the expense of Jaws. Now there’s a film – Piranha, I mean. Kidding.

Squatters – at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2014