The Coen Brothers are the poster boys of film-lovers everywhere. From their early works Blood Simple and Raising Arizona to their bona fide cult classics The Big Lebowski and Fargo, through to their more recent offerings No Country for Old Men and Gambit, they have kept their subject matter varied, but their signature style still permeates every syllable of dialogue and every shot on screen. Therefore news of a new Coen brothers project is always met with glee by cinephiles the world over, but always leave expectations extraordinarily high.
Inside Llewyn Davis will certainly not disappoint lovers of the Coen’s body of work, although it won’t appeal to mainstream audiences.
Set in Greenwich Village in 1961 at the height of the new folk scene graced by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Dave Van Ronk (the latter’s memoir serving as initial inspiration to the Coens for the project), the film follows the eponymous Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), through a week in his life. Having once been part of a critically acclaimed folk duo with his friend Mick, who had committed suicide, Llewyn now struggles on as a solo folk artist, making just enough money to keep himself alive but not enough to pay any rent, which forces him to sofa-surf his way through life. We join him mid-performance at The Gaslight, the hub of the Greenwich folk scene, a performance which ends with him being beaten by a mysterious stranger in the back alley of the club, kick starting a cyclical chain of events. He takes refuge with folk music fans The Gorfeins, a couple who are absent from the start of the film, being drawn only through the interior décor of their uptown apartment. Llewyn then finds himself in charge The Gorfeins escapee ginger housecat, who he drags on a subway journey with him to his friend’s Jean and Jim’s (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) tiny apartment. Llewyn presents himself as a suffering artist, but one who seems to have completely disconnected from everything, including his music, a man engulfed in an early mid-life crisis or ongoing depression. Therefore we are left to follow him on his week long journey of making progressively poorer and poorer decisions. “Everything you touch turns to shit. You’re like King Midas’ idiot brother” Jean shouts at him early in the film, foreshadowing much of what is to come.
Llewyn is a very troubled soul, and the Coen’s cleverly leave it largely up to us as an audience to decide whether he really is a tortured genius or deluded loser. Their decision to have all the musical sections (and there are several, giving it more than a little in common with their other music peppered offering O Brother, Where Art Thou? along with the name of the Gorfein’s cat hinting at the theme to match O Brother’s Odyssey) performed live and in full adds an extra dimension to the piece. Each musical performance is raw and beautifully performed, Oscar Isaac in particular giving a very fragile take on each song. Together with Justin Timberlake their performance of “Please Mr Kennedy”, Jim’s comedy attempt at a real chart hit (complete with baritone input from Adam from Girls aka Adam Driver), is something to behold. Teaming up once again with Dylan’s one time guitarist T-Bone Burnett, (who bought in Carey Mulligan’s now husband Marcus Mumford as an associate music producer) the soundtrack itself is a gem.
There is a great turn by Coens’ favourite John Goodman as Roland Turner, Llewyn’s jazz maestro road-trip buddy. Goodman opines that jazz is superior to folk as in jazz they play “ALL the notes”, leaving Llewyn seething quietly to himself.
However it is the cat, that darned cat, who provides some of the most thought provoking moments in Inside Llewyn Davis. The story itself could be seen as a straight-forward week in the life of a struggling folk singer in which not much happens, or, as the repeated appearance of the cat would suggest, something much deeper and much darker. “Llewyn IS the cat? No, Llewyn HAS their cat” he yells over the phone to the Gorfein’s secretary (prompting much online speculation that the cat may actually be Llewyn). Llewyn drags the cat around with the same sense of responsibility that he continues his musical career- he doesn’t even know the cat’s name, he just thinks he should be responsible for it.
“If it was never new, and it never gets old, it’s a folk song” says Llewyn in the first scene of the film, and it’s a sentiment which resonates as the Coen’s mess with timeframes and narrative structure right to the final scene of the film. Llewyn is a man stuck in a loop of bad behaviour and contrary decision making.
Inside Llewyn Davis tackles suicide, abortion, homelessness and depression, so is ultimately a tragi-comic offering. Like the character of Larry in A Serious Man, Llewyn is a product of years of being put upon, but ultimately as captain of his own ship he steers repeatedly in to very stormy waters.
It is a film that definitely stands up to repeated viewings, and has left me pondering over it for hours on end. Tragic, comic, clever and thought-provoking, Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen’s best.