Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen Brothers at their most Coen-esque. Lest this be interpreted as a criticism, bear in mind that their formula is an almost sure-fire bet with each new film. Inside Llewyn Davis sees American cinema’s most interesting siblings tread that fine line between drama and comedy with panache once more. It boasts a self-loathing depressive male lead, fascinating side characters and T-Bone Burnett supervising a marvellous soundtrack. It’s nothing new, but it is something wonderful all the same.
Based on folk legend Dave Van Ronk, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a Coen-esque male in the mould of Walter Sobchak, Jerry Lundergaard and Larry Gopnik. Like these poor souls, he is bearing the brunt of some life choices that are on the cusp of turning sour. He’s a struggling folk singer in 1961 New York. Kennedy is eyeing up the moon for colonisation, but Bob Dylan has yet to make it big. For America, as for Llewyn, there is potential for greatness on the way, provided the Robert Zimmermans or Lee Oswalds of this world don’t get in the way. He plugs away at dingy Brooklyn bars and couch-surfs where he can. In a vein similarly explored by many directors, from Jim Jarmusch to Bruce Robinson, the aspiring artist constantly courts the bum’s rush. Money and opportunities are in short supply, and admirers and acquaintances can’t guarantee a place to stay. Among those acquaintances are former girlfriend Jean (a brilliantly sweary Carey Mulligan) and her squeaky-clean singer-songwriter hubby Jim (Justin Timberlake).
Driven as much by a need to prove others wrong as by his artistic aspirations, Llewyn sets his sights on performing at the Gate of Horn folk club in Chicago, which is overseen by producer Les Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Before he can get to Chicago, Llewyn has issues to sort. First among those issues, Jean is pregnant with Llewyn’s child and wants him to stump up for an abortion. It’s all a touch heavy, but leave it to the Coens to infuse proceedings with a comedic touch. Indeed, that comedic touch is seriously needed here, as sympathetic characters are practically nil. A lot of Llewyn’s problems are due to his abrasive nature; whether drunkenly heckling another musician or insulting the hosts and guests at a dinner party, he’s not the most endearing of chaps. Perhaps Mulligan’s Jean has a point; she constantly declares he’s an asshole. The only thing that saves the character from all-out unlikeability is Isaac, whose turn is positively star-making. Like William H. Macy in Fargo or John Goodman in The Big Lebowski, Isaac infuses Llewyn with a humanity to counter the venom. His frustration is excessive, but recognisable. His manager is getting no gigs, his album (from which the film gets its title) isn’t selling and that nasal-sounding fellow at the club is proving more popular; who wouldn’t vent? Screams and resignation feel like they’re never too far away, but Issac’s restraint keeps us on side.
When Llewyn looks for a way to Chicago, he hitches with jazz musician Turner (the aforementioned Mr. Goodman, brilliantly sour) and his chauffeur, a beat poet named Johnny Five played by Garret Hedlund (making an impact despite little-to-no dialogue). Being a Coen brothers film, their trip has no preordained outcome, but having these characters along for the ride keeps it interesting. From the abusive Turner (When not poking Llewyn with his walking stick, he subjects him to a barrage of insults) to Llewyn’s older academic friends the Gorfeins (plus their cat, a frequent scene-stealer), Inside Llewyn Davis offers another selection of flavoursome side characters, small in screentime but big in memorability. They’re all swaddled in a marvellous folk soundtrack, with tunes hummable and relatable. If you’re not moved by Llewyn’s rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, you’ll be tapping your feet to “Please Mr. Kennedy” (performed by Isaac, Timberlake and Adam Driver, whose utterances of the words ‘outer’ and ‘space’ make him sound like he came from there).
Soundtrack and setting aside (The cold, desaturated blues of ‘60s Greenwich Village come courtesy of DP Bruno Delbonnel), there’s not a lot new to Llewyn’s pursuits within the context of the Coens’ oeuvre. Maladjusted male malcontents on episodic journeys to possible redemption is the siblings’ bread and butter. Yet when the tale is made with such care and vim, such grumbles are moot. With heart and laughs, Inside Llewyn Davis is another shining entry in the Coens’ already gilded repertoire.