Riding high on the success of their biggest commercial hit to date (True Grit), Inside Llewyn Davis is a change of tack for the Coen Brothers and one of their most curious, slight and inaccessible films to date. Following a struggling folk musician as he misses golden opportunities, chases wild geese (metaphorically) and a cat (literally), this is the story of a diamond in the rough who just can’t catch a break. It’s very Coen-esque that this should be their next project, especially as Ethan Coen has said, “Maybe Llewyn Davis doesn’t compromise because nobody’s offering him enough money. It’s similar to our situation.” It’s as though they’ve shied away from success to avoid the temptation to commercialise.
The year is 1961, and Davis’ character is largely modeled on the man who Bob Dylan called his ‘first New York muse’, Dave Van Ronk. Ronk never made it big and remained largely obscure. For Davis, his stagnant career is largely down to his own jaded attitude towards failure. He assumes things won’t work out, doesn’t recognise potential leads and cares more about his friend’s escaped feline than the people in his life. After friend and fellow singer Jean (an hilariously sweary Carey Mulligan) rants at him for getting her pregnant, all he can say is he’s worried about the cat! If he put as much effort into relationships, professional and personal, as he does into chasing the cat, then maybe he’d get somewhere. Instead he’s dismissive and preoccupied, tortured by an inner turmoil which the Coen’s choose not to explain until half way through.
Oscar Isaac is the title character. It’s impossible to picture anyone else filling Llewyn’s shoes; he’s the perfect blend of grizzled po-faced confusion, not to mention musical, and makes it possible to sympathise with a character who could have been very unlikable. Any fears that pop star Justin Timberlake would mar the quality of the ensemble cast are unfounded; he plays his part as nice guy musician Jim to a tee. He cleverly portrays how his character doesn’t realise the extent to which Llewyn feels threatened by him, and also performs one of the film’s best songs in a sequence that lets the Coens soar in their love of music and quirky madness. It’s a non-introspective and infectiously upbeat number, which Davis makes no bones about scorning.
Regular Coen collaborator John Goodman makes a brief appearance as an insensitive handicapped codger, who manages to get under Llewyn’s skin and look deeper inside him during an extended sequence where they share a car to Chicago. Indeed the performances are uniformly impressive, and often underplayed, giving much of the Coen’s zany, bitter dialogue a melancholy feel unprecedented in their famously offbeat filmography. Even the cat is brilliant; apparently the Coen’s directing talents aren’t limited to working with humans!
Bruno Delbonnel more than deserves his Oscar nomination for the cinematography, with the distinct colour palette and nostalgic glow striking an alluringly atmospheric chord. The recreation of the period is vivid yet distant, making a bygone time seem lost to history but still strangely palpable.
The soundtrack, produced by T-Bone Burnett in his third time working with the brothers, is another gem from left field that will leave you with catchy melodies, from the lively to the wistful, echoing in your mind for weeks to come. Van Ronk’s underground classics are blended with some terrific original songs, giving the soundscape special character.
The story is structured episodically, and each scene is filled with such resonance and poignancy that you almost expect it to be over with a cut to black at any second. Instead, the Coen’s tie things up with a thematic tidiness and mysterious elegance, bookending Llewyn’s adventures in a way that will haunt audiences and linger long after the lights come up.
Inside Llewyn Davis is both an ode to and warning for starving artists addicted to the pseudo-romance of their loser lifestyles. Sweet and stinging, the Coens are the kings of success without compromise, and have the authority to dare and make such complex and sweeping observations on the creative types they simultaneously identify with and rise above.