Each new Coen brothers' film is a journey into the unknown – will we find ourselves in the Texan wilderness, a film noir mystery or a comedy crime caper? But one thing is for sure: there will be that cracking wit and indefinable Coen aura of spirituality and mortality. On this occasion we are immersed in the smoky bars and run down apartments of the 1960’s New York folk scene, following the moderately successful but utterly penniless singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) on his journey from friends' couches to dingy clubs and back again. Success seemingly behind him, he has a box of his LPs to flog and is determined to get back on the radar of the record labels – but with no desire to compromise and his friends and contemporaries finding their own success, Llewyn is apparently destined to live on the margins, hampered by his own stubbornness.
The big sweeping themes and tragedy in Llewyn’s music – hangmen, battles, kings & queens – create grand operatic images in song, but these are juxtaposed with his impoverished domestic existence and mundane difficulties. A neat device that gets right to the heart of the character, and indeed all folk musicians – in a way they are all living on lies and the grandeur and lyricism of a bygone era, borrowing from the lives and experiences of others. The music of the period is afforded tremendous importance here, with interludes that encompass whole songs in all their acoustic, melancholic glory. More than a frivolity they are as vital to the story as the characters, and do much to set the film’s sombre, lyrical mood.
It’s also enjoyable to view the film as a perversion of sentimental musical biopics – wallowing in the drudgery and inflated ego of the journey to the top, but becoming paralysed in these formative days with no hint of stardom and limelight, just a cyclical existence of regret and disillusionment as Llewyn’s high opinion of his own music and failure to compromise lead him nowhere. With a wealth of plot beneath the surface it’s a deceptively simple film that passes by with pleasant ease and continual amusement – but it’s alive with depth and winding ambiguity as every character or fleeting moment seems to have an unseen transcendental importance. A ginger cat, John Goodman’s enigmatic Roland Turner, an alley fight – all this glimpsed symbolism seems intentional and intrinsically linked to Llewyn’s arrested development. In this way Inside Llewyn Davis is tremendously satisfying – striking an effortless balance between engaging entertainment, sparkling wit and a dark atmosphere of endless disappointment. Underpinned by an exceptional performance from Oscar Isaac as the frankly unlikeable titular star, the film creates a totally immersive world that draws you into his ill-fated story and all its darkness and misery. But most importantly it doesn’t forget to make us laugh – finding some beautiful dialogue and gallows humour in the sheer hopelessness of it all.