After another foray into remake territory with True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen are back on more familiar territory with Inside Llewyn Davis, another tale of a perennial loser and his attempts to improve his lot in life. The loser in question this time around is the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a singer on the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene.
Unlike the Coens’ other cinematic screw-ups however, Llewyn has the talent and drive to actually make it as a musician, he’s just shit out of luck. He isn’t stealing babies or kidnapping his own wife to collect a ransom, he’s just trying to work his way up the ladder but finding it increasingly difficult.
The film charts a key couple of weeks in Llewyn’s life. His partner Mike has recently thrown himself off a bridge, derailing their double act which seems to have had a modicum of potential and leaving Llewyn as a less appealing solo act. With no money and nowhere to live, it’s make or break time for Llewyn: will he make it as a singer or will he have to pack it in and head back to the Navy?
To complicate things further, Llewyn has knocked up his ex-girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) who is less than enamoured with the thought of having his baby, particularly as she’s now with nice-but-dim folk singer Jim (Justin Timberlake).
Not a lot really happens in Inside Llewyn Davis, instead it just ambles along, following its moody but talented protagonist through his life, watching all the shit pile up on him in a seemingly never-ending cycle. It’s a slight plot and Llewyn is at times a hard guy to like but nonetheless, the film is completely compelling as we follow Llewyn on his minor adventures, be it recording an awful-yet-hilarious novelty song with Jim and Al Cody (Adam Driver), driving to Chicago with a bizarre, drug addled jazz man (John Goodman) and his mumbling beat-poet driver (Garrett Hedlund) or trying to track down a friend’s cat that makes a break for it at every opportunity.
Crucial to the film’s success is Oscar Isaac who proves to be a real find for the Coens. After giving a string of strong supporting performances, even in otherwise mediocre fare like The Bourne Legacy, Sucker Punch and Robin Hood, it’s clear Isaac has the acting chops but his musical skills are equally as impressive, with a clear, strong voice he sells the film’s array of brilliant folk songs, compiled by Coens regular T Bone Burnett, with a heartfelt honesty that makes it easier to root for a guy who isn’t always the most likeable.
Tonally, Inside Llewyn Davis is most reminiscent of A Serious Man, with the lead character seemingly fighting the forces of a cruel and random universe. Inside Llewyn Davis might be slightly colder than that film, perhaps too cold for some, but imbues its melancholic story with the same dark, peculiar humour which fits perfectly with the beautiful, grey-blue colour palette of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography.
Ultimately, Inside Llewyn Davis is a small, quiet effort from the Coen brothers but is undeniably one of their very best. Their usual brand of quirky cynicism is enlivened by Oscar Isaac’s soulful performance that provides the film with a beating heart at the centre of its gloomy universe. There’s also enough here to chew over on repeat viewing, from the significance of the cat’s name, to an ending that suggests Llewyn is doomed to continue the same cycle of failure.