The Coen brothers’ latest protagonist, Llewyn Davis, lives the life he sings about. As part of the duo ‘Timlin & Davis’, he recorded the folk standard ‘Dink’s Song’, which includes the lyric, “Life ain’t worth living without the one you love.” Now he sings it alone. The reference is clear: Oscar Isaacs’ character is silently hurting from his singing partner’s suicide.
There isn’t a plot, just a series of demoralising episodes in which Davis tries to pay his way and and advance his career as a singer-songwriter. He has few friends, if any. His closest bond is with a locally popular folksinger named Jean (Carey Mulligan), with whom Davis’ had an affair months prior to their first onscreen meeting. But there’s a colossal amount of animosity, she calls him “shit,” an “asshole” and says he’s “like King Midas’ idiot brother” (a possible reference to his old singing partner, Mike). Davis reacts to such comments with a wry smile and a sarcastic remark – an endearing trait, even if you do suspect he’s a bit of an asshole.
The Coen brothers have honed their brand of character study. You’d suspect the seriously filmic scenes to exist in the backstory – the suicide, the fling – but the Coen’s care about the lonely loser Llewyn, not the previously aspiring one-half of a duo. Unlike many other directors, the tiniest details, however mundane, are massively important to understanding the brilliant, bizarre array of characters. A ginger cat, for example, ever cropping up in the film, will quickly become an iconic Coen brothers trope. The attention to detail in Inside Llewyn Davis means further viewings is a must to make sense of these oddly likeable, offbeat characters.
This is well-trodden territory for the Coen brothers. The Job-like inflictions on the main character are in mould of A Serious Man; the icy car journeys Llewyn Davis shares with Ronald Turner (John Goodman) and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) are reminiscent of Fargo. Perhaps their auteur-status suggests that they are subtly weaving their filmography together. Regardless, the slight lack of a fresh dynamic keeps Inside Llewyn Davis from the top bracket of their work. Admittedly, a minor criticism.
However, the use of full, live takes of songs in the film is refreshing. Oscar Isaacs’ capacity to sing, play and act proficiently is of huge benefit. One scene involves Davis playing at a dinner table before a rage disrupts the performance – what you’ll truly be gutted about, above any of the conflict, is that you couldn’t hear the song to its conclusion. The songs are tiny gaps of escapism that punctuate the hour and forty five minute running time; they prevent the film keeling over from the weight of the Coen brothers’ likeable, but very melancholic, sensibility.
The wintry feel of the film beautifully realises the flushed colours of LP covers such as The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. But there is no romanticisation here. Like always, the Coen brothers have recreated their eccentric worldview on screen with a fascinating backdrop of early-sixties Greenwich Village to boot. This combination was always going to succeed in making a film you will still be thinking about in the morning.