Inside Llewyn Davis ★★★★

Like many of their protagonists, the Coen brothers make films that aren’t always easy to love. Although a great admirer of the duo and their unique brand of cinema there are only a handful of their films that I truly adore and most of those took more than one viewing to appreciate. As such it might take me a while to decide where Inside Llewyn Davis sits amongst the rest of their work even if its undeniable qualities shine through from its opening moments.

Loosely inspired by a chapter in the life of folk singer, Dave Van Ronk, Inside Llewyn Davis is a melancholic journey through the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ‘60s following the titular Llewyn Davis, a singer lost and adrift. As with many of their best films this is a loosely plotted odyssey as Davis experiences the same cycle of despondency and self-destruction as he tries to make it as a solo artist following the suicide of his musical partner.

Davis, like the cold and unforgiving city he calls home, is aloof and difficult. Living a stray existence, schlepping from couch to couch before quickly outstaying his welcome, Davis is a man with few ties and even fewer real friends. His destructive tendencies constantly push away people and opportunities as he struggles to make meaningful connections, either personally or through his music.

The Coen brothers rarely try and smooth Davis’ prickly edges but for all his ruinous traits come the end you are invested in his struggles. A big part of this success is not just down to the script’s meticulous observations but also Oscar Isaac’s soulful and bruised performance. Having paid his dues in a series of supporting roles Isaac now gets his moment in the spotlight managing to excel in a difficult and unlovable role. He’s a brooding presence, annoyed at the world for not appreciating his genius but never helping his cause as he fails to change his ways.

Isaac is backed by a wonderful support featuring both new and familiar faces to Coen’s troupe of actors. Carey Mulligan is brilliant and surprising as a bitter and vitriolic ex-flame whilst John Goodman shows up for a glorified cameo as Davis journeys to Chicago seeking fame and fortune. Even during their most misguided ventures, the Coen brothers always have an impeccable eye for casting and so it proves here, even down to Davis’ unlikely feline travel companion.

Although still featuring the brothers’ trademark ear for witty dialogue, Inside Llewyn Davis is perhaps their most serious and sombre work to date. It’s a contemplative character study of a damaged and aimless man who stumbles from one set back to the next. It is a rich and textured story that I am sure will only improve with time. Its elliptical and episodic nature may disappoint some craving more focused storytelling but it is entirely in keeping with its ramshackle protagonist and the world he inhabits.

Technically the film is a marvel. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is rich and evocative with its muted palette and wintery blues and greys perfectly complementing the melancholic mood of the story. The period decoration and attention to detail is exemplary, bringing the Village to vivid life whilst the all-important folk music, brilliantly performed by the actors, is worth the price of admission on its own.

Inside Llewyn Davis is yet another rigorously crafted and thoughtful gem from the Coen brothers.

Adam liked these reviews