Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from the Coen brothers, is an odd hybrid of comedy and existential howl of despair. Set among the clubs, coffee shops and rented rooms of the New York folk music scene of 1961 it stars Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, a gifted but catastrophically self-centred performer whose efforts to establish himself as a commercially viable act are constantly sabotaged by his thoughtlessness and refusal to make the necessary accommodations of other people’s help and constructive advice. He’s repeatedly seen tramping through snowy streets to whatever kindhearted acquaintance he thinks he might be able to persuade to put him up for the night and his spare time between his very occasional gigs seems to be spent in arguing with and generally alienating fellow musicians, family members and record company bosses. About the only living being other than himself that he shows concern for is a ginger cat that he manages to misplace while minding a friend’s apartment.
Llewyn’s misadventures and lack of social niceties make for some very funny and sometimes winceworthy scenes, with dialogue as sharp and inventive as you might expect from the makers of The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing. There are several genuine laugh-out-loud moments. But there’s also an underlying melancholic tone that makes his bumbling plight feel almost tragic at times, most notably during a speculative roadtrip that Llewyn makes to Chicago in order to try to impress a famed folk music impresario. His two travelling companions (one taciturn, one patronisingly garrulous) seem not just eccentric but disquietingly alien and the long car journey to a freezing, windswept Chicago comes over like an odyssey to the dark depths of Llewyn’s soul. The muted, soft-brown, colours that the Coens use for the bulk of the film give way here to deep wintry blues and near-blacks that couldn’t be a better choice for spelling out “All hope is lost”.
Llewyn’s one redeeming quality is that he is, despite all his arrogance and indifference towards the people who might help him, a pretty spellbinding guitarist and singer…which means that Oscar Isaac must be as well, as we’re treated to several unbroken and closely observed sequences of the man doing his thing, at live shows and auditions and at one point even in the passenger seat of a car. The Coens have always been good with music (witness the groundbreaking success of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack) and one of this film’s main pleasures is the way it’s saturated with stripped down folk songs that are captivating and authentic (or authentic-sounding, anyway. I’ve got no idea how many of the pieces here were written specially for the movie). The fingerpicking and close harmonies are gorgeous and even the deliberately cheesy tunes have a weird fascination.
You wouldn’t call Inside Llewyn Davis a feelgood film by any measure other than musical as it ends up feeling as weirdly unresolved and ultimately a bit unsatisfying as other recent Coen efforts No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man. It is however exquisitely made, with some great turns by the cast (Carey Mulligan is convincingly and formidably pissed-off as one of Llewyn’s one night stands) and an unusually affecting atmosphere. It’s certainly the best film I’ve seen about a talented but self-destructive acoustic guitar player since Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown about fifteen years ago…although I guess there hasn’t been too much competition there. And it’s got the best cat acting ever.