Loosely inspired by, rather than religiously based on, the memoirs of celebrated folk singer Dave Von Ronk Inside Llewyn Davis is a quintessential Coen Brothers’ film. As only they can achieve the film manages to be everything from quirky, heartfelt, melancholic and tune-hummingly brilliant all the while holding you in rapture with a bittersweet smile plastered on your face.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a down on his luck folk singer who spends his days looking for his big break and his nights couch surfing from friend to friend. One week he finds himself the custodian of his friend’s cat, having to confront his angry bit on the side Jean (Carey Muligan) while picking up a bit of session work with her boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake). It’s not an easy life, not made any easier by the fact that Llewyn is his own worst enemy with many people telling him that while his music is good there probably isn’t any money in it.
Llewyn’s life is a depressingly vicious circle that is perfectly captured in the exploits of the cat he is accompanied by. At first he is desperate to escape his current existence, then mistaken for someone he doesn’t want to be, caught in a car wreck of a world before finally setting out on an adventure that might, just maybe, show him the way home. Or he’s going to be left on the highway of life, limping, battered and bruised to die.
It’s shot with an ice-cold pallet and an often noirish, bleak aesthetic. Llewyn is referred to as “King Midas’ idiot brother” because everything he touches “turns to sh*t”. We’re told that he doesn’t want to go anywhere in life, that he’s happy wallowing in his own sense of unappreciated artist. It’s all set in cramped, dank looking New York apartments or cars so full of people and clutter they’re positively suffocating. Sounds depressing right? By all accounts it should be a thoroughly dour affair. And yet in the hands of the Coens Inside Llewyn Davis, through sheer force of will, worms its way into your heart to create something staggeringly warm and affecting.
This is partly down to a wonderful central performance from Oscar Isaac. As Llewyn he’s a typical Coen creation, a loveable rogue who always seems to make the wrong decisions and say the wrong things. And we love him for it. The bad hand he is dealt is our good fortune because it never stops to test and push Llewyn. Isaac rises to the challenge, rarely engaging with the cartoonish characters around him with anything more than a quizzical look before moving on. He’s supported brilliantly by the likes of Muligan, who is dry enough to give the Sahara a run for its money, Ethan Philips, as one of Llewyn’s many long suffering go to friends and Jerry Grayson as his distracted manager. It’s through these characters that the Coens are able to immerse you in their world with their unique sense of humour. That quirky, sarcastic and often surreal humour that is achingly familiar and mocking of everyday life.
Topping it all off is a soundtrack chock full with the kind of tunes that you’ve probably never given a second thought to but in this context are never less than captivating. If you leave this viewing experience not wanting to immediately go away and download “If I Had Wings” then checking your pulse would be advisable.
Inside Llewyn Davis is undeniably a Coen masterpiece, perfectly capturing everything these American artists have always strived for and achieved in one achingly melancholic but bizarrely uplifting piece of filmmaking.