FIlm Review: “Inside Llewyn Davis” — Opaque to a Fault

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a watchable if not particularily compelling tale of the never-ending woes of the protagonist, a walking basket case of self-destruction.

Issac and cat in "Inside Llewyn Davis."

Issac and cat travel together in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

By Gerald Peary

Joel (b.1954) and Ethan (b. 1957) Coen were too young to have experienced firsthand the folk music scene of the early 1960s. So it seems an obvious question to ask what motivated a movie with that setting in that time period? Inside Llewyn Davis takes us back to those seminal days in New York City, with its eponymous lead character a guitar-strumming folk singer (Oscar Isaac) vaguely based on Dave Van Ronk. In countless rave reviews of the film, critics all assume, especially with the revered T Bone Burnett assigned to produce the soundtrack, that the Coens have some special affection for the music on screen. After all, they and Burnett had mainstreamed bluegrass in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, bringing string band mountain music to a trendy popularity.

However, I’ve watched Inside Llewyn Davis twice, and I have no idea of the Coen’s point-of-view about the music they present in this film. All I can say is that there is music, and piles of it. The oft-inscrutable Coens, famously uncooperative when pressed to discuss themes in their movies, are more opaque than ever in their artistic intentions. Frustratingly so.

Most of the music scenes are set in a replicated Greenwich Village club, the well-situated Gaslight Café, 1961, where, each night, up-and-coming folk singers play to be discovered, to get record deals, to be reviewed in the Times. Meanwhile, they are paid by passing a hat. Among the regulars are Jim and Jean (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), two thirds of a trio most reminiscent of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Davis, whose brooding repertoire includes, besides songs associated with Van Ronk, plaintive English ballads. We also see a callow youngster in Army uniform bursting forth with Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing On My Mind.” And there’s a quartet with ringing Irish harmonies and cable-knit sweaters who are spitting images of the Clancy Brothers.

Are some of the numbers by those above intended by the Coens to be viewed as works of integrity? Davis’s perhaps? Are some to be viewed satirically, like the earnestly done Irish ditty? Are some white-bread fatuousness? For instance, there’s Jim and Jean’s faintly smug doing of “500 Miles,” replicating Peter, Paul, and Mary’s pious self-importance singing their hit. At the end of the movie, a new troubadour steps onto the Gaslight Café stage. It’s Dylan, of course. Is his number—brash, personal, written by the artist—supposed to blow every song heard earlier into dust, render them instantly irrelevant? Or is the Dylan song great, the Dave Van Ronk songs almost-great, the others sterile, arrid also-rans?

Or perhaps all the songs are worthy?

The Coens allow almost every tune in their movie to play on through its multiple verses. Does that mean the Coens love it all? Damned if I know. Neither do we get a cue about which acts are phony, which are quality, from the way the Coens have staged the audience at the Gaslight. They are well-dressed, well-mannered. They are as quiet as library mice, the folk music venue is a veritable cathedral, and all numbers within Llewyn Davis are applauded respectfully and equally. Again, are the Coens part of the veneration? Or are they satirizing the crowd’s politeness, conformity, timidity?

Damned if I know. The Coens are driving in neutral.

At this point, I would urge everyone to take an intermission break and check this out. Go for the 2012 documentary, For the Love of Music: the Club 47 Folk Revival, a stirring, emotional tribute to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, club where Joan Baez was discovered and where practically every folkie passed through and sang, including Dylan and Van Ronk. What a contrast to the constipated, zombie music scene of the Coens! The vintage footage of Club 47 from the 1960s shows vividly that the club was informal and fun, the audience was alive and rowdy. As the title of the documentary says: it’s about love of the music.

Yes, I am old enough to have been about in the early 1960s, to have seen Baez performing barefoot, to have dug the world music of Theodore Bikel and Miriam Makeba, to have been stunned by the release of the first Dylan album. Exciting, exuberant times, and not reflected at all in the bloodnessness of Inside Llewyn Davis. And more: folk music was connected to anti-bomb pacifism and the civil rights movement. The always apolitical Coens, nice Jewish boys from the Minneapolis burbs, keep at bay the social-consciousness impulse of much of 1960s folk music. There’s no African-American equivalent of Josh White with his “If you’re white, it’s all right. If you’re black, get back.” Or of left-wing protestors Malvina Reynolds, Tom Leher, Pete Seeger. Revealingly, a real-life political song, albeit a tacky one, “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” gets neutered by the Coens, altered from singer Mickey Wood’s plea to not be drafted to, in the movie, not be sent into outer space!

Away from the Gaslight, Inside Llewyn Davis is a watchable if not particularily compelling tale of the never-ending woes of the protagonist, a walking basket case of self-destruction, bad times precipitated mostly by Llewyn’s infantile anger outbursts. Each time you feel that he’s getting a bad break with everyone calling him an asshole, he quickly acts like one. This suffering artist is often insufferable. Davis isn’t great around women, or relatives, or friends, or other folk singers, but he does, I suppose, have a heart. We know that when, guilty guy, he chases after a cat which was put in his charge and has escaped into the streets of New York. This cat is a really great one, smarter and more expressive and more alert than practically anyone in the movie.

If you get a bit bored with the narrative of Inside Llewyn Jones, you can watch it differently, seeking the fun references to other films. The escaped strawberry blonde cat is an homage to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, where a similar-looking pet feline scoots off from Marlowe’s house into the mean streets of LA. Llewyn sings a song to his mute, inexpressive dad, who looks a lot like the Woody Guthrie, crippled by Huntington’s Disease, sung to by son Arlo in Alice’s Restaurant. Finally, see Coen Brothers perennial fat man, John Goodman, emerge from an auto as the Wellesian second coming of Touch of Evil’s obese Hank Quinlan. He pulls himself about on crutches like the villain in another Orson Welles classic, The Lady from Shanghai.

Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.


  1. ian W. on December 21, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    Thank-you for this! You have seen through the Emperor’s New Clothes. As a folk afficionado that loved A Mighty Wind but was worried that this would be as close to the bone, I was however looking forward to this film, and was so disappointed, in all the ways you have articulated.
    Thanks Again!

    • Gerald Peary on December 22, 2013 at 12:31 am

      Thanks, Ian: I probably should have mentioned A Mighty Wind because the love of folk music therein, even of the corniest songs, is so palpable and moving. What a contrast to the bulk of Llewyn Davis.

  2. ian W. on December 21, 2013 at 11:12 pm

    To pursue this a little further – one scene that is so baffling for me is when Llewyn sings a genuinely moving version of Ewan McColl’s “Shoals of Herring” to his father in the nursing home, only to realize his father has shit his pants during the performance. Opaque indeed.

  3. david lincoln brooks on January 18, 2014 at 12:50 am

    Yours is one of the few reviews I’ve read that isn’t glowing with a kind of naive teenaged face-value. “A warm homage to the folk era”? Hardly. I agree with you that the songs, all played through to the end, are abysmal. No way would I buy this CD of music. Is the message of ILD a cynical one, not unlike A MIGHTY WIND’s: that the folk movement was just as phony and hollow as any other fad in showbiz? The film seem to bring luck to those folkies who are apple-cheeked and goyish-looking; is this a film about a free-floating antisemitism and Jewish self-loathing in such a crude, pre-Internet America?

  4. Gerald Peary on January 19, 2014 at 1:38 am

    I don’t know what the message is, or how the Coens feel about all those songs.They have never been this frustratingly opaque. I didn’t say that the songs are bad, I complained that they are all treated in the same neutral way, neutered way. As for Jewish self-loathing: you can read anything into this movie because it is so blank. You could also argue that the goyish singers as being satirized. Whatever.

  5. Donald DiMauro on March 19, 2014 at 10:00 am

    It seems those most unhappy with this movie expected a Ken Burns PBS documentary paean to the ’60s folk scene. The film instead focued on a talented musician, (a bit too serious, and haven’t we all been there?), attempting to forge a career in a area important to him and working to succeed on his own terms. But the Coens’ view was not Hollywood romantic. In a differnt story, Bud Grossman would have called Davis just as he was shipping out, and would have offered him the gig, the earned reward for this singers’ devotion and suffering. It is not really important what the Bros. thought of the music. The scene never did last, and most of those performers ended their careers just like Davis. We all have dreams and standards, but fate and the world does not abide by our wishes Not the case with Dylan though.

    Just wondering, noting a comment above: now that we reside in this world of hyper PC sensitivity, is not the term “goy” derisive, or is that ok for some to say?

    • Gerald Peary on March 22, 2014 at 6:44 pm

      I hate Ken Burns documentaries, so that’s not what I am asking for. I certainly don’t want the schmaltzy story you suggest I want. Where did you get that idea from my review? And why isn’t it important to feel what the Coens feel about the music? That’s called a point of view, which the Coens seem to do without at their most passive moments.
      As for “goyish,” I’m fine using it when I’m describing a sometimes Jewish view about things straight and Christian.

  6. David Rumpler on December 4, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    I watched the film for the first time last night (on DVD), and I my thoughts echo a lot of the things you said in your review. For a film about a musician, and with an awful lot of music in it, it never really weighs in on the music itself. We learn that Llewyn can be both a short-tempered jerk, and (occasionally), a person with some compassion and artistic values. What we never get a firm grip on is whether Davis’ music is any good or not, or whether the Gaslight artists he looks down his nose at are any good or not. In a movie like Amadeus we know before hand that Mozart is considered a genius. Here we are shown an artist who clearly thinks he is better than those around him, but we are given very little evidence whether this is true, or if it is just in his own imagination.

  7. Matt Hanson on December 4, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    I adore the Coen Brothers and I’ve seen every movie they’ve done (sometimes multiple times) and I agree that Davis is blank and vague and one of their worst films.

    I’d still put it above their absolute worst film- that would be their absurd, gross, and pointless remake of The Ladykillers – just because at least the songs are nice.

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