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Inside Llewyn Davis: The Coen brothers’ have made a masterful elegy for wasted potential

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Issue 2388
Oscar Isaac as musical loser Llewyn Davis
Oscar Isaac as musical loser Llewyn Davis

Homeless folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) thinks he’s special. He lugs his guitar around New York’s 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. 

Acclaimed filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen show him plodding  from couch to couch and gig to thankless gig waiting for a breakthough.

But all the world sees is a loser. 

One scene sees him cadging money to pay for an abortion for Jean (Carey Mulligan)—a fellow musician he accidentally got pregnant—from her unsuspecting boyfriend.

Another shows him face down on the floor in a rainy alleyway, taking a kicking he deserves for an outburst the night before.

From our point of view he delivers his music with talent and heart-rending passion. 

But few on screen are moved. Llewyn faces scorn, indifference and then the ultimate damnation, a manager who says, “I don’t see a lot of money here”.

And even giving up on his dream in despair to return to his day job turns out to be harder than he would have believed.


Taking place at the peak of the Greenwich Village folk scene, the film certainly makes you want to hear more. The Coens did something similar in recreating another influential yet often overlooked genre, Bluegrass Country, in their 2000 comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? 

But they also render Greenwich a cold and unforgiving place.

And the frozen, sparse landscapes on Llewyn’s fruitless road trip to Chicago mark one end of a palette of bleakness. They complement the sunscorched Texas desert of their 2007 thriller No Country For Old Men.

And like Coen classics right back to 1984’s Blood Simple it seems to delight in denying its characters any kind of closure or even meaning.

But instead of No Country’s ultra-violent criminal chase, here the tale of futility is played out across one week in the life of a person who’s far more unremarkable than he realises.

A few scenes remind us that some of Llewyn’s contemporaries would have better luck. One features a brief appearance from a young Bob Dylan. In another we see Llewyn take part in a banal, but successful novelty hit.

And the fact that life and even friendship goes on seems like a triumph in itself.

But nothing happens to challenge Llewyn’s view that the only options open to him are loser or sellout—exhausting failure and frustration, or abstention from even trying.

There are too many films out there that tell you to follow your dreams. What they don’t acknowledge is that we live in a society where almost all our dreams are crushed.

Inside Llewyn Davis recognises that tragedy of what we all could have been and will never be. That nod of sympathy is more comforting than an infinity of feelgood platitudes.

Inside Llewyn Davis is on general release

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