Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen Brothers most difficult films to judge. It bares all their hallmarks – beautifully shot, fully realized and recreated settings, eccentric characters, razor sharp dialogue and wit, but it feels less engaging outside of its musical performances, more direction-less, and with less for the audience to connect with than one has come to expect from these undoubted masters. But one cannot help feeling that this is all intended. It’s an opaque film in more ways than the wintery New York haze that dominates the screen; it refuses to be clear or conventional, its meanings hidden away, but it keeps returning to my mind, the film almost insisting on multiple viewings.
The film begins in the Gaslight Cafe, soon to be central to the folk revival of the 1960’s, with Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) at the end of his set, a beautiful rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”. The impression of Llewyn’s isolation from his audience, this musical scene, is evident immediately; the lighting and framing making it seem as if he is there all by himself. On finishing he is told a friend is waiting for him in the alley out back, and on going out to see him, proceeds to get beaten up by silhouetted stranger. It seems like we are headed into classic Coen territory – a man who finds the universe plotting against him, like Barton Fink or Larry Gopnick, all part of a tightly plotted tale a la Fargo or even The Big Lebowski. Instead we get a rambling series of episodes which are connected by songs, with next to no plot to speak of, following a man whose problems are all of his own making.
We trail Llewyn for the next week or so as he crashes on couches, alienates friends and family, and fails to progress in his musical career. He’s an asshole who asks for a loan for an abortion from the friend (Justin Timberlake) whose girlfriend he slept with and knocked up (Carey Mulligan), who berates another musician on stage, and who thinks himself as not just above the ‘squares’, but also the other musicians who he sees as lacking his own talent or integrity. This makes him a difficult lead character to follow, but Isaac’s singing gives us glimpses of his soul, that in there somewhere is more than just “King Midas’s idiot brother”, a man who turns everything to shit. It’s clear that while he’s talented, that isn’t enough, and Llewyn is destined to fail; the circular and wandering nature of the film therefore representing the futility of the predesigned narratives we set out for our lives and careers, and that rarely come to fruition. LLewyn’s personality puts him in one bad situation after another, but he’s a man the Coens seem to respect and empathise with, a symbol of a musical scene for which their fondness is clear.
Isaac’s performance is wonderful, a star-making turn in which he puts everything into his singing, with two particularly soulful and heartfelt scenes that make the music (brought together by Coen collaborator T-Bone Burnett) the absolute highlight of the film. All the other characters are secondary to Llewyn though, drifting in and out of the story, often given little time to make a lasting impression, unlike previous creations such as Jesus in Lebowski; though John Goodman does gives it a good go as an eccentric, foul-mouthed and opinionated Jazz musician with whom Llewyn catches a ride to Chicago.
It’s difficult to pick out where the film misses that final piece of magic that would makes it one of the Coens’ best. In some ways it’s similar to O’ Brother Where Art Thou in that each scene is often rewarding in its own way, but somewhat unsatisfactory when taken as a whole. Despite this, Inside Llewyn Davis is certainly the Coens’ funniest and most unique film in years, and one that pops up in my thoughts often, making me want to follow Llewyn again.
Inside Llewyn Davis will be released nationwide on January 16th.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake
Written/Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Distributed by: Roadshow Films
Running time: 105 minutes