PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'Inside Llewyn Davis' Is Subdued But Undeniably Affecting

The Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t overwhelming at first glance, but it has a perfect, natural rhythm and flow that you don’t even notice how it sticks in your head.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
US DVD Release date: 2016-01-19

With much of the recent conversation about the work of Joel and Ethan Coen centered around their latest movie, the recently released Hail, Caesar!, it’s a good time to look a few years back to their last film, Inside Llewyn Davis. It's even better that the Criterion Collection just dropped a packed new version that fans will absolutely want to consider picking up.

The titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a special kind of scumbag -- the kind of guy that borrows money from you to pay for your girlfriend’s abortion; the same girlfriend he also knocked up. The greatest feat that the Coen Brothers pull off, however, is making you sympathize with Davis as they delve into and probe his psyche.

As he struggles to make a place for himself in the New York City folk scene of the early '60s, Llewyn bounces from couch to couch, hitting up any and all acquaintances, from family and close friends to the vaguely familiar, for anything he can. Along the way he uses up whatever good will he accrued and burns every bridge to ash behind him. Frustrated by the watered-down pap filling clubs and music charts, the songs he bleeds into can’t even buy him a winter coat to stave off the cold.

Llewyn’s solo career is heading nowhere and all of his greatest achievements and best songs came as part of a duo. When you learn that his former partner, Michael, didn’t just leave the group but threw himself off the George Washington Bridge, you begin to understand why he’s given so much leeway. He’s a bastard, but he’s also a wounded fragment of his former self, wallowing in bitterness and self-pity.

While he's not always an easy protagonist to root for, beneath his miserable, prickly exterior, Llewyn is a passionate artist and dreamer. He’s after something grand, a great and meaningful life, and nothing scares him more than the idea of living an ordinary existence, of moving through the world without leaving a mark. He sees the end result of this path in his father, a former merchant marine, broken and near catatonic in a nursing home after a life of hard labor, and he’ll only go down that road kicking and screaming.

The Coens have always been a two-headed filmmaking monster, and it’s easy to read them in this scenario. Inside Llewyn Davis appears to be, at least in some part, the brothers’ attempt to imagine life without the other. It’s hard to imagine this duo breaking up and the siblings going solo, and Llewyn faces a similar struggle. He knows how good he was with Michael—by all accounts they had something magical—and he doesn’t know if he can ever hit that high again. That pressure weighs on him, every mention of Michael rips off the scab, and all he can do is lash out.

Isaac delivers a complete, immersive performance, radiating all of these feelings and more with subtlety and grace. He walks a line between caustic, warm, and absolutely heartbreaking.

The score and soundtrack arranged by T Bone Burnett helps create an enveloping atmosphere, and Inside Llewyn Davis paints a picture of a truly unique moment in American popular culture. It places you firmly in the Greenwich Village scene in the moments before Bob Dylan's arrival catapulted folk into the mainstream.

Though there are funny moments, including one when Llewyn heckles other performers, Inside Llewyn Davis definitely falls into the more serious side of the Coens’ body of work. Their trademark quirkiness does surface, as when a stranger stares Llewyn down on the subway, or in the adorable orange cat that also plays an integral narrative role, but by and large Inside Llewyn Davis plays it straight. There's less overt madness and absurdity than in the likes of The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and Hail, Caesar!. The closest Inside Llewyn Davis comes to this is a dreamy road trip with John Goodman’s junkie jazz man and his nearly mute, proto-Kerouac manservant Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).

Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t overwhelming at first glance, but it has such a perfect, natural rhythm and flow that you don’t even notice how it sticks in your head. A few days later it dawns on you that you haven’t stopped thinking about it.

As good as Inside Llewyn Davis is, Criterion's newest release is a remarkable package, full of all kinds of goodies for fans that will deepen one's appreciation. The DVD/Blu-ray features a fantastic new 4K digital transfer supervised by the Coens, as well as an audio commentary with authors and historians Robert Christgau, David Hajdu, and Sean Wilentz that provides unique insight into the film and its' setting. There’s an in-depth talk between the Coens and Guillermo del Toro dealing with the evolution of their approach to filmmaking. And, if that weren't enough, there’s also a 43-minute making of documentary. That’s just the first disc.

The second disc includes Another Day, Another Time, a feature-length documentary about a concert of the music from and inspired by Inside Llewyn Davis featuring Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Jack White, Rhiannon Giddens, Oscar Isaac, and many more. There’s a 16-minute Criterion exclusive conversation between the Coens and T Bone Burnett. A 20-minute interview with Elijah Walk, who collaborated with Dave Von Ronk on his memoir, The Mayor of MacDugal Street, which inspired the film, talks about how it captured the folk scene on the verge of upheaval, and how it changed and evolved. There’s even Sunday, a short documentary about how the police violently banned folk musicians from attending a music festival in Washington Square Park, which gives an interesting perspective on the time, the stakes, and the public perception of folk.

Because this is a Criterion joint, it wouldn’t be complete without some supplementary reading material. Film critic and director Kent Jones, who helmed the 2015 documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut, delivers an insightful, in-depth essay on Inside Llewyn Davis. As a bonus, the essay folds out into a lovely poster.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.