Inside Llewyn Davis DVD Review

Oscar-winning directors Ethan and Joel Coen return with Inside Llewyn Davis, by turns a melancholy and funny portrait of the eponymous down-and-out folk musician living in Greenwich Village during the notoriously bad winter of 1961. Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake, the film paints a bleak but moving picture of a struggling artist, filled with great musical performances.

What’s it about? Since the death of his musical partner, folk musician Llewyn Davis struggles to find work. Sleeping on couches, struggling with money, finding his relationships irreparably damaged by his bad choices, Davis faces a decision: give up music and make a living the old-fashioned way at the ports of New York, or try and follow his dream of being a working musician. But when the music scene is full of one-hit-wonders, wannabes, cold money-driven producers, and the only paid gigs going are as back-up guitarists, where does he start?

Verdict: Without a doubt, this is a divisive film among audiences and maybe it’s supposed to be. Half the audience will love the subtlety of the Coen’s distinctive austere colour palette, ambiguous characterisation, tonal bleakness and sharp, clipped bursts of humour. The other half will struggle to find much to love about this film – the intelligent characterisation, which defies stereotyping, can be hard to relate to and occasionally makes the characters seem like harsh grotesques. And that central tone of exhaustion in the face of unchanging bad luck could be interpreted as cynicism or even outright misanthropy. But that’s not quite true. It’s this noir-ish ambiguity that runs through this film that is ultimately its lifeblood: is Llewyn sympathetic or damnable? Are dreams valid or a joke? One thing is for certain: Inside Llewyn Davis really does require a second viewing.

As a picture of a struggling artist, the astute film-viewer will love the way Inside Llewyn Davis raises these questions. This almost feels like a cinematic antidote to Hollywood’s endless stream of movies declaring you should follow your dreams. A disjointed journey across a wintry landscape with no real direction is the perfect setting for a story of pure hopefulness in the face of uncertainty. But is this truly hopeful? The central plot is so ambiguous, and with an uncertain ending, that the audience can never be certain of how this story goes. Why the misery? Is the universe against Llewyn or are his problems self-made? Those bigger ambiguities let the little moments truly make this film: Llewyn’s reaction to Jim’s “Please Mr Kennedy” or John Goodman’s character loathsomely pontificating about folk versus jazz. And it’s certainly full of great humour.

But perhaps at best it is an elegiac swan song for all the struggling artists of the past. The messy, overflowing, graceful grunge of New York in the early 60s is beautifully recreated here for a story that is truly of its time. For all the artists born before the dawn of the internet for whom paid gigs were hard to come by and the dream of selling your music was an almost-impossibility, this is a sweet and sharp ode for those who didn’t make it but tried anyway.

Extras: A fairly basic making of feature is the only extra on the DVD release, but you wouldn’t expect too many extras for a film like this.

Final Words: With an off-beat tone and unique look, style of characterisation, and themes, this won’t please everyone. But for those who love it, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that will require plenty of repeat viewings to appreciate.

Inside Llewyn Davis is available to buy on DVD & Blu-ray from 26 May 2014 on Amazon here http://amzn.to/RReC4Y