Directors: The Coen Brothers
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Adam Driver and Garrett Hedlund
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Date: January 24th
“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
The same might be said of The Coen Brothers’ catalogue; a unique, completely idiosyncratic body of work that at times seems more interested in its own universe than any place in time. Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, focuses on the folk scene in early 60s Greenwich Village yet sits perfectly in the alternate Coen reality canon.
Llewyn Davis is a transient folk musician who’s recently lost his partner and is trying to get by while circling the drain of playing the Gaslight Cafe night after night and leeching off the kindness of others. His welcome with friends is fast disappearing with his snobbish muso attitude rubbing everyone he meets the wrong way as he relives failure after constant failure. As one character notes, he’s like King Midas’ idiot brother, everything he touches turns to doodoo.
Unsurprisingly, the Coens have absolutely nailed the look and sound of the era. Working without long-term cinematography collaborator Roger Deakins, they’ve employed Amelie‘s Bruno Delbonnel who coats every frame with a beautiful laminating gloss. They’re happy to reference artists and trends of the time without explicitly name-checking—Aran jumpered men sing “The Auld Triangle”, a young Bob Dylan mumbles in the background and inspiration Dave Van Ronk’s album covers matches Llewyn’s. Best of all is the antithesis of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album art which sees Llewyn walking down a similar street on a murkier day with a tabby cat in place of Suze Rotolo.
Isaacs excels in a masterclass of understatement, leaving him grossly overlooked in an award season when big issues—Slavery! Dementia! AIDS! Corruption! Hair!—reigned supreme. Llewyn Davis is both equally amiable and repulsive; the kind of guy who, when you let crash on your couch, no sooner is he through the door and he’s trying to sleep with your girlfriend and eating your cereal. It’s essentially a one-man show with others periodically chiming in with a backing vocal. Of those, Carey Mulligan is the standout as one of two people, along with his sister, who see through Llewyn’s bullshit and is more than happy to express in ways that will make you think you’re watching The Wolf of Wall Street.
The Coens’ have always excelled in making memorable tertiary characters like no other filmmakers and have outdone themselves here; members of the Girls cast show up as prototypes for the hipsters of Williamsburg, Garrett Hedlund gets the perfect role of looking like a movie star without having to act like one and John Goodman devours scenes like his heroin-shooting, convalescent jazz musician consumes Welsh rarebit.
For a movie that both provides a concise snapshot and meanders at the same time, Inside Llewyn Davis is deeply touching and might just be The Coens’ most personal film to date. Coupled with an excellent, sang live on-set soundtrack curated by T Bone Burnett and it easily sits comfortably beside their best work.
The cat’s great too.