You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
A tender tale of artistic failure dressed up as endeavour – The Coen Brothers return with a story about a man adrift in the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1960s New York
If there was such an adjective as ‘Coensy’ – and trust me, there should be – then this film is Coensy to its very bones. It is perhaps more restrained than other offerings, particularly than their earlier outings, and lacks the over-the-top, screwball element to the humour but that is not to suggest, for one second, that there is a dearth of their typical comedy. There is a menagerie of idiosyncratic characters and neither the movie nor protagonist seems to know where they’re headed next. Except Messrs Joel and Ethan so clearly do, and it is through the mastery that their latest is like an LP spinning on a turntable; an elliptical odyssey painted with poignant melancholy.
Oscar Isaac is tasked with playing Llewyn Davis, a man adrift in the Greenwich Village folk scene in New York in the early 1960s; the only thing he knows how to do is to keep on keeping on. The film opens with him playing his brand of heartfelt music in the Gaslight bar after which he is utterly unexpectedly beaten up in the establishment’s back alley. Then we jump to the first chronological scene of the piece, a week or so earlier, as Llewyn wakes up in the empty flat of his friends, the Gorfeins. He is something of a couch-surfer, heading out each day to find the next evening’s bed. The nights are creeping in, and he doesn’t even have a winter coat.
As he leaves the Gorfeins’ apartment, their cat slips out of the open door, which duly closes before he can catch the critter. Now he is wandering Greenwich Village like some lonesome hobo, lugging not just his guitar case, but also an adorable ginger cat. He moves between an ever-decreasing circle of friends, which include Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). The latter is a wonderful Coensy creation of pure spite for Llewyn with whom, it transpires, she has previously had a romantic affair that has resulted in a pregnancy. Amidst all of the sofa-hopping is a sojourn to Chicago upon which he encounters the exquisitely superior and gruff jazz musician, Roland Turner (John Goodman).
Llewyn is one of those perfectly-pitched Coens protagonists who is blowing in the idiot wind. He is unable to take control of his life, even when the opportunities present themselves. Doubtless it will always be someone else’s fault, but it’s clear that he has not – and maybe never will – get over the loss of his performing partner, emotionally or professionally. It becomes painfully evident that Llewyn’s musical career is no longer ailing, but has flatlined, and the question arises over whether this is the time to give it all up. Oscar Isaac provides a star-maker of a turn; a man on the street combining the sorrowful, soulful performer with a comically derisory outlook on the pop ditties for which he has to play session guitar to make ends meat.
A late Bob Dylan cameo is arguably there to hint at a brighter future for folk, but that is not a glory that Llewyn was ever destined to share in; this is the ballad of an also-ran. As he touchingly plays the song for which he and his partner were once known, the sense is formed of an eternal circle to which our hero is finding it impossible to say farewell. This is accentuated by the film’s beautiful photography which captures the era flawlessly in earthy hues and hazy focus.
Seeing a new film by the Coen brothers is like listening to a new record by your favourite band; you kind of know what to expect, the familiar sounds are all there, but there’s something new and unexpected running through it. In most cases you like the new album, even if it’s going to need to grow on you – but that’s okay, though, because you can put it on repeat. In the case of Inside Llewyn Davis, you’ll be happy to press play again as soon as those credits end. It’s a tenderly handled tale of artistic failure dressed up as endeavour, and a man trying to keep pressing on even when he’s going nowhere.