Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Inside Llewyn Davis

Poster

 

If you work in the arts, you probably know someone like Llewyn Davis… someone who has a boatload of talent, but can’t seem to stop self-sabotaging. The Coen Brothers make use of this archetype – the slacker who just can not, for the love of God, get on with it – in their tale of the early 1960s folk music scene in New York City. The movie is really interesting, though at times frustrating to watch, mostly because you just want to punch Llewyn in the face and tell him to get it together. The costumes (by designer Mary Zophres) are wonderful, and there is a very cute ginger kitty who steals just about every scene he’s in.

Llewyn is forever without a warm coat, even when he is given one. The thin corduroy blazer isn't going to keep anyone warm for long.

Llewyn is forever without a warm coat, even after his manager GIVES him his overcoat. The thin corduroy blazer isn’t going to keep anyone warm for long. The blazer is a symbol of Llewyn’s self-inflicted helplessness and stubborn arrogance.

This is a bleak tale, albeit a pretty funny one, of Llewyn Davis (played exquisitely by Oscar Isaac) and his near misses with success, love, fame, and a ginger cat.  Homeless and drifting from couch to couch, Llewyn sets out on a Quixotic adventure (not exactly of his own planning) to meet with Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) at Chicago’s famed music venue, Gate of Horn. Things don’t go exactly as planned, as the whole thing turns out to be kind of a fool’s errand. In the end, is Llewyn Davis transformed?  Has he learned anything?  The film’s ambiguity about this is as frustrating as Llewyn himself.

 

When we first meet Llewyn, he's in his underwear... couch surfing at his friend/benefactor's house

When we first meet Llewyn, he’s in his underwear… couch surfing at his wealthy friend/benefactor’s house

Maybe I’ve just known too many people like this in my lifetime.  And I will say this – Oscar Isaac is brilliant in this role.  It’s very difficult to play a largely unlikeable character that the audience still wants to succeed.  We root for Llewyn, even when he’s slept with (and – spoiler alert – knocked up) his friend’s wife.  We root for him, even when he loses his friend/benefactor’s cat.  We want him to go out there and get that gig… even when he poops all over it and ruins his own chances.  Oscar Isaac brings to Llewyn something lovable, yet despicable.  It’s a difficult thing to do as an actor, and I admire his ability to create a character this nuanced.

 

This is the only image I could get of these amazing Aran sweaters on an Irish a capella quartet. Fabulous!

This is the only image I could get of these amazing Aran sweaters on an Irish a capella quartet. Fabulous!

The key word here as far as the costumes are concerned is SWEATERS.  Lots and lots of luscious sweaters.  The film takes place in the colder months (though I couldn’t pinpoint when, exactly).  Llewyn is without a winter coat (even after his manager GIVES him one), freezing his face off, while everyone around him seems to wear cozy sweaters.

 

Welcome to Sweaterville

Welcome to Sweaterville – note the shapeless bra on Jean – perfect use of undergarments to create the silhouette of the period.

Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) team up with Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) as kind of a Peter, Paul and Mary trio – with a distinct nod to the Kingston Trio with that striped shirt on Troy.

 

The striped shirt kings of the folk music scene.

The striped shirt kings of the folk music scene.

Incidentally, Slate.com published THIS ARTICLE earlier this month about the origins of the Llewyn Davis storyline. The article talks all about the influences and only-slightly-veiled personages in the film. As a costume designer, this is totally fascinating.  The way this story was built, weaving truth with narrative fiction – it’s kind of magical.

 

Llewyn, Jim and Al Cody.

Llewyn, Jim and Al Cody.

I am a huge Adam Driver fan, and was delighted to see him here in the role of Al Cody.  Here he is in his big tall “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott” hat with Llewyn and Jim singing a kind of absurd song about John Kennedy.  He contributes gems to the song like the words “OUTER SPACE” in a deep, drawn-out voice… my brother couldn’t stop repeating it after the movie.  It’s a hilarious scene.

 

Johnny Five and jazz Hepcat Roland Turner

Johnny Five and jazz hepcat Roland Turner.

And then there are Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and Roland Turner (John Goodman), reunited on screen once again (having worked with them together on 2007’s Death Sentence, this was AWESOME to see). Johnny and Roland are driving west – Roland a wheezy, polio-afflicted jazz musician, and Johnny, his valet – and Llewyn joins them for part of the journey.  Things get weird (putting it mildly) and Llewyn splits. You can see here, in their costumes – something is UP with these two.  What has drawn them together? Is Johnny Five hustling Roland? It’s a curious dynamic, and the costumes (Johnny Five’s James Dean look to Roland’s Burl Ives look) tell you that someone is working an angle here.

 

James Dean and Burl Ives... just sayin!

James Dean and Burl Ives… just sayin!

The tone of the film is beautiful – everything is earthy, sepia-toned and grounded in a muddy palette that helps to lock in the mood of the film.  It’s gorgeous costume design, and my hat is off once again to Mary Zophres and her team for their marvelous work.  See this movie, folks, and gah! The soundtrack! I need to go out and get it this moment.  It’s lovely. And while I’m not a cat person necessarily, the ginger kitty in this film is irresistible.  He steals every scene, and is a clear metaphor for what Llewyn seems to keep chasing but never finds.  Looking forward to your thoughts, Frocktalkers – hit me up on Twitter @Frocktalk!

– KMB

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