The most impressive thing about the Coen brothers these days is that they are seemingly effortlessly brilliant. Like Luis Suarez and nutmegs, they make filmmaking look straightforward and easy. Inside Llewyn Davis, their tale of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s, slots in perfectly in their filmography, closest in tone to Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There.
The movie opens with a close-up of microphone in front of a dark background. A title has told us where we are: The Gaslight Café, 1961. Guitar music is playing and a male voice starts singing: “Hang me, oh hang me; I’ll be dead and gone…” Even before we see our protagonist, we know exactly where we are. It’s unusual to talk about the music first in a film review, but the soundtrack of Inside Llewyn Davis is not only brilliant, but also integral to the story. Most of the songs are performed live and in full length by the characters, almost making it a concert-movie of sorts. Enlisting the help of regular collaborator and music legend T-Bone Burnett, the Coens have assembled (there is only one original song) one of the best soundtracks in years.
The film tells the story of the failed (or rather failing) folk singer Llewyn Davis. After losing his singing partner, Llewyn is struggling to make it as a solo artist. Broke (he can’t even afford a winter coat) and homeless, he treks from couch to couch, until he runs out of friends and starts at the beginning. We are never sure whether Llewyn is a misunderstood musical genius or just a pretentious failure, but he sure thinks he is the former. He is rude, selfish and takes the charity of others for granted; yet somehow strangely likeable. Credit for this has to go to Oscar Isaac, who delivers a superb, understated acting and singing performance, completely embodying this character. He is never caught acting.
As usual with the Coens, an abundance of eccentric and funny supporting characters pop in and out of the story. Highlights include Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan playing the musician-couple Jim and Jean, John Goodman, who is finally reunited with the Coen brothers for a fifth time as the hilarious, drug addicted jazz musician Roland Turner, and a ginger cat which Llewyn chases through New York.
The structure of Inside Llewyn Davis puts an ironic, extremely coenesque twist on the classic road movie (there even is an actual road trip to Chicago in the middle of the film). Llewyn is constantly travelling from place to place, meeting different characters. Unlike Bruce Dern in Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s great road movie, Llewyn’s journey has no goal, and our hero keeps going around in circles, returning to where he has been before. It’s the story of a loser who remains a loser.
While the story, when you think about it, is quite bleak, the tone is surprisingly warm and affectionate, not only due to the music, but also due to the characters. The dialogue is filled with an ever so slightly strange humour and wit, some of which you won’t notice the first time around, rewarding multiple viewings. The period is beautifully realised and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel almost makes you forget that Roger Deakins was busy shooting Skyfall.
Making sense of it all may be difficult and if closure is what you’re looking for, you’re going to be disappointed. Asking more questions than it answers, Inside Llewyn Davis is an almost nihilistic, empty masterpiece, yet full of warmth and humour. It’s a film about how following your dreams might not always be the best idea, it’s a film about music, it’s a film about grief and responsibility; it’s simply a film you have to see.