The brother’s Coen have worked within numerous genres throughout the course of their film making partnership. They’ve jumped from the caper, to the crime flick, to the Western, yet all of them have that distinct Coen-esque vibe, namely down to the off-kilter humour and wickedly dark streak of tone. Inside Llewyn Davis is a much more focused affair from Ethan and Joel, particularly following from the more grandiose offering that was their last film, True Grit. Davis represents the pair at their most restrained and subdued, but no less captivating and intriguing, as we dive into a brief moment in an individual’s somewhat unremarkable life.
Set against the backdrop of 1960’s New York Folk scene, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer who, since the suicide of his singing partner, has been coasting from numerous venues on the generosity of acquaintances and their sofa’s. Aimless with no motivation, fixed address, or desired goal for his career, as well as being stuck with a ginger moggy, we witness Llewyn at a moment in his life where certain choices have the potential to change the fabric of his reality and put his life on a track with a destination. One such opportunity offers Llewyn the chance to go to Chicago and play for a renowned record manager. Whether Llewyn acts upon these opportunities is up to only one person; himself.
Inside Llewyn Davis sees the Coen’s at their moodiest. Their focus is on the concern of artistic integrity, and the compromises some artists may be too stubborn to make in order to become commercially successful, or to simply turn a decent buck. The Coen’s themselves have never quite threatened their integrity in such a way. Any integrity that they did lose with the one-two disappointment of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers was by no means a result of compromise, and was quickly restored with their films of the latter half of the 00’s. But their contemplation on the notion of integrity within this film feels as if it has come from somewhere personal, somewhere deep within themselves, something not perhaps that they have experienced, but something that they fear could happen if they are not careful.
What makes this thematic exploration even more intriguing is the fact that we very rarely feel sympathetic towards Llewyn. He is a man of self-destructive tendencies; he never faces up to his responsibilities, he is incredibly rude to the friends who kindly give him a place to sleep, and has little regard for the consequences of his actions. He is also a man capable of being very mean-spirited, we suspect as a result of frustration towards his own failings. He cannot be happy for someone who is more successful than him. He is undoubtedly a talented individual but lacks the fore-sight and humility to truly grasp any opportunity that is in front of him. With this type of character as the focus of the film, you’d expect the narrative to involve a means of re-awakening, re-discovery and redemption, but no. The film’s bravest move is perhaps to show that everything that Llewyn encounters through the course of the brief 100 minute run-time has very little affect on his character.
Why then should we care? Frankly, the Coen’s never give the impression that they want you to particular sympathize with this character, they desire to present us with a window into an oft-forgotten period of folk music culture (on the brink of Dylan’s arrival) and they want us to experience such a period through the eyes of an individual who has every bit of potential to lead the craze, but ultimately chooses not to. The character and film would be close to intolerable if the actor portraying Davis was nothing short of excellent, and thankfully in the form of Isaac, the Coen’s have crafted a truly memorable anti-hero. Isaac demonstrates unique skill and craft in both his abilities as an actor and a musician, making Llewyn an extremely watchable presence. He exudes an affable aura despite his character being somewhat of an ass. He lends Llewyn an air of naivety and child-like mis-comprehension, painting him as a man who is not capable of negotiating the adult world. Much of the supporting cast do not have enough screen-time to truly make an impact, as they are simply individuals Llewyn happens to wade between or stumble across in his aimless life, but they are a talented bunch of players, featuring the likes of Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, and F. Murray Abraham.
While undeniably provoking and engrossing, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the most cynical films from the brotherly pairing. Despite containing a very cute cat and a wonderful soundtrack, the film is never optimistic, with much of the humour once more coming from moments of social awkwardness and cringe-worthy embarrassment. It is a coldness of touch reflected in the simply spectacular cinematography. Each frame is glazed with misty-eyed melancholy, drained of colour and hope but beautiful none the less. The music of the picture as well exudes personal sorrow and expert craft, demonstrating the cast’s genuine musical talents.
The bottom line is that the Coen’s have done better. There is no side-stepping that fact. Inside Llewyn Davis feels too small, self-contained and a tad thematically limited to stand up with their heavy hitters, like No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo (Barton Fink remains my personal favourite). There is something a bit too cold about the Inside Llewyn Davis that makes the proceedings feel a bit more off-kilter than usual for the pair. It is a sombre piece of cinema that seems to be profoundly elegant without having much to say. None the less, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the most beautifully photographed films of recent memory with an exceptional central performance and an intriguing narrative focus that marks it as yet another great, if not masterful, work from the Coen Brothers.