The lead character in Inside Llewyn Davis is purportedly based on the Greenwich Village folk legend of Dave Van Ronk. While some of the details resemble the legend, the character himself does not, and that’s really the problem with the film.
The Kermode/Mayo reviewers expressed a disappointment with the film, which – on paper – should be pushing all the buttons for music aficionados. If you’ve read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, you feel you know Greenwich Village, 1961, quite well. If you’ve read further and more widely, you think a film like this is going to be your cup of meat.
It’s photographed to look like the cover of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, or perhaps, Inside / Dave Van Ronk, and it looks fairly great – most of the time. The vintage cars, the old road west to Chicago, the gas stations, diners, the Gaslight Café… but Oscar Isaac himself, as Llewyn Davis, doesn’t look like he belongs in 1961. Kermode and Mayo were discussing yesterday the notion of “a 70s face” in connection with a different film. Isaac does’t have a 60s face. Carey Mulligan doesn’t, either. In fact, whenever she’s on screen, there’s a wrongness to the shot that I couldn’t stop noticing. Especially in close-up, there was too much of something: too much pancake? Too much soft focus? It just didn’t seem to work.
As for the music (curated by T Bone, natch), there’s a wrongness to that, too. It may be something to do with Autotune. It may be something to do with the way music production has changed over the past 50 years. But I never found the performances very convincing. It’s almost as if the film wants to make a point that you can’t really make: that folk music changed when Dylan came along, and that before he came along it was sweet-sung and polite. But as we all know, Dylan was “doing” Woodie Guthrie when he made his first recordings. And if you listen to Van Ronk’s 1959 record Ballads, Blues and a Spiritual, you hear a gruff-voiced approximation of a traditional blues voice, as hard-edged as anything Dylan did a few years later. The change Dylan wrought was in writing his own words to both new and old melodies. People like Van Ronk had been curators, Dylan was an innovator. But the music didn’t sound much different.
The soundtrack of Inside Llewyn Davis is just a little bit too polite and sweet-sounding and Autotuned-sounding. The character’s singing voice is just too Peter, Paul and Mary to fit the character. As to that character, whereas Van Ronk was popular and widely loved, this Llewyn Davis has almost no redeeming qualities – this was the source of Kermode/Mayo’s disappointment. My wife said afterwards that he lost her when he abandoned the cat, and there’s the problem. You’ve got nobody to root for. Sure, one of the themes here is about being a “nearly” man in history. So he’s always nearly doing something. But the problem here is that you don’t like him nearly enough. Mulligan’s character is as bad: nasty, vicious, angry, while not even acknowledging her responsibility for her own actions.
As to the film’s narrative and theme, well, it seems designed to provoke speculation and eventual cult status. Is he in hell? Who was “Mike”, really? Is “Mike” something to do with “Microphone”. Is Davis the cat? Is John Goodman the Devil? Who knows. Maybe it will become a cult. Maybe, like Donnie Darko, all the questions will turn a fairly unlikeable film into something a few people love to distraction. I’ve never been a Coen Brothers cultist, so I doubt it will happen to me.