The Coen Bros have always skilfully manoeuvred the lines between popular crowd pleasing fare and intelligent, artful cinema, so it is interesting that for their latest film they have set their eyes upon an individual who resolutely fails to bridge this gap. Set in bohemian 1960’s Greenwich Village, we follow the struggles of one Llewyn Davis, a folk singer who just can’t catch a break. The film has a strong kinship with one of the Coen’s earliest films, Barton Fink. While that film focused on a disillusioned, introspective screenwriter struggling to conform to Hollywood whims, at least the character had some sense of purpose.
Llewyn, played by Oscar Isaac, is a difficult character to like. Sullen, tetchy and self entitled, he trudges across a wintry New York foraging for couches to sleep on at night. One of these couches belongs to Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), two old friends who are now coupled up. Relations between Llewyn and Jean are frosty from an ill advised one night stand and the potential after effects. Meanwhile, Llewyn’s vague attempts to make a go of his solo career are hampered by the need to recover a friends cat that he has haplessly lost.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a meandering, muted affair by the Coen bros standards. They have reined in the bombastic set pieces and the eccentric characters for a more reflective character piece. Llewyn is probably the most elusive and dislikable lead in their canon yet, even in amongst the apathetic stoners, cold blooded killers and petty criminals. At least with them there was some wit and flair – here Llewyn seems like he has given up on his life. There are a few more eccentric moments to warm the palette, in John Goodman’s colourful jazz guru and the humorous travails with the errant cat.
Music obviously plays a huge role in the film. Much has been written about the involvement of T-Bone Burnett and Mumford & Sons (Wait! Come back!), and the folk songs are faithfully recreated on screen. I think without the musical interludes the film would have tested even the most willing viewer; they provide a respite both for Llewyn and the audience. You get the feeling this is all he has to live for, and yet, perhaps I am projecting, the songs are fairly unremarkable to my ears. I wondered if it was a conscious decision by the Coens to demonstrate Llewyn as a run of the mill talent.
Aesthetically the film is beautifully rendered, with Bruno Delbonnel stepping in for their regular DP Roger Deakins. Most of the film is drawn out in sickly browns which adds to the muted tone, yet the night time scenes are deliciously noirish and smoky. As per usual the performances are all on song, with Isaac giving an uncompromisingly grumpy turn as the lead. While we never sympathise with him, there is a sense of empathy. One flaw I did find was in Mulligan’s role as Jean, which seemed mostly one dimensional as the aggressive ex-lover.
Inside Llewyn Davis will go down as one of the Coen bros left turns, where they eschewed any Hollywood thrills for a more personal rumination. It is a hard film to love, withdrawn and melancholic, yet there is something lurking beneath the surface that draws the audience in. Anyone who has ever felt lost or embittered by the choices they have made in life will find kinship with Llewyn, and I think many people will be able to relate to his battle between dreams and everyday reality.