Some critics have compared the Coen Brothers’ latest film, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS to their previous downbeat allegory for life and its essential rubbishness, A SERIOUS MAN. There are similarities, but in some ways I see it as more akin to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN in that one of its primary concerns is consistently evoking a particular mood. There’s also similarities with O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? in that both films are musicals…only not really. In fact, you can spot references to most of the Coens’ previous work in Llewyn Davis, references that usually refine and mature the original idea. That’s what this film is about in the end, not just following a struggling musician failing at life, but it’s also about the Coen Brothers showing how far they’ve come stylistically, how grown-up they are, even if they still refuse to give definitive answers in their films, perhaps even more stubbornly in their middle age.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is an immensely talented folk musician who has hit an all-time low in his career and his personal wellbeing since the sudden suicide of his musical partner. Broke, depressed, and desperate, Llewyn couch-surfs any friend or causal associate who will have him while he tries to revitalise his career and move on with his life. Along the way, he loses a friend’s cat, discovers his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant, likely with his child, tries to exploit another friend’s (Justin Timberlake) musical success, and hitches a ride to Chicago with an obnoxious, drug-addled jazz musician (John Goodman) and his beat poet driver (Garrett Hedlund). Will Llewyn find success and put his life back together, or will he end up exactly where he started? If you know the Coen Brothers’ work at all, you should be able to guess the answer.
The soundtrack, meticulously constructed by regular Coen collaborator T-Bone Burnett, and mostly intoned and strummed by the ludicrously talented Isaac, is a real humdinger. A film that’s about music has to have a great soundtrack, and Inside Llewyn Davis has among the very best. The songs semi-parody the self-imposed misery and occasional cheesiness of stereotypical folk music, but they’re expertly constructed, catchy songs regardless. The film opens on Llewyn belting out his latest ode to depression in the dingy confines of the Gaslight Café as his scruffy audience watches, seemingly caught in a contemplative trance, bohemian cigarettes and European coffee close at hand. Isaac, as Davis, sings and plays a lot in the film, and proves to be a formidable musical talent. Mulligan and Timberlake get to work their pipes as well, and JT’s folky facial adornment is extremely impressive, as is Mulligan’s range of knitwear.
Davis is the absolute centre of his grey little universe, and the film’s story never shifts focus far from his misery. From forcing whoever he meets to give him somewhere dry to sleep for the night out of sheer pity, to being on the receiving end of a ferocious (and somewhat justified) verbal attack from Mulligan’s Jean, Isaac is always captivating despite Llewyn never even coming close to becoming likable. He’s talented, but he’s difficult in social situations, and he’s self-centred, and he absolutely believes his own hype. You suspect that his abrasive personality has limited his career prospects, as when Timberlake’s Jim generously invites Llewyn to play for him as a session musician and is repaid with surliness and unwelcome criticism of his music’s content (I mean, it is gimmicky and annoying, but Llewyn should be grateful of the work!).
Capturing the Coen world in glum beauty is cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Delbonnel’s aesthetic is appropriately bleak for Llewyn’s going-nowhere story, framing the desolate highways and unforgiving, bitterly cold city streets in as imposing tableaus offering no comfort to our protagonist, and no hope of anything better.
Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are a few laughs to be had with character actors (Goodman, F. Murray Abraham, Adam Driver) turning up as the usual Coen oddballs, each given a scene to demonstrate what they do best (Goodman spits insults, Abraham is grouchy, Driver is a human sound effects machine). There’s even a hint of political commentary, a rarity among the Coens’ work, with appearances from young lost souls who have joined the American armed forces not because they want to serve their country, but simply because they don’t see their life as a civilian heading anywhere very fast. Perhaps this is a broader comment on anti-establishment attitudes to the Cold War (particularly with the escalation of the Vietnam conflict imminent), that taking an active part in them was an act of desperation rather than a demonstration of pride.
As much as Inside Llewyn Davis is a road movie, and by definition more about the journey than the conclusion, the finale does leave an indelible impression on the mind. Llewyn stated out a failure and (spoiler alert) ends up still a failure, but more content with his place in the world, and with a (slightly) more positive outlook on life. He may not have yet made it, but he’ll keep trying and one day, through sheer determination, he might succeed (though he’ll have strong competition from a fellow performer at the Gaslight who makes a brief appearance in the film’s final scene).
Apart from the memorable, sterling folk soundtrack and striking cinematography, Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t quite feel like it’s reached the instant classic status of some of the Coen Brothers’ earlier work, but it’s no less rewarding for being a bit of a slow-burner. It’s a film that I’m sure will be appreciated even more over time, and will be worth repeated viewing as there’s a lot to dissect, and much to enjoy in this rich mood piece. You might even leave with a strange little smile on your face, which is an incredible result of watching a film about a loser looking for a cat and a career in the grey American winter. SSP