The Coen brothers are famous for writing and directing darkly humorous films that skirt the edge of traditional film narrative. Their latest creation, Inside Llewyn Davis, continues the trend and with the titular character we’re presented with their bleakest antihero yet. Following Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk singer in the early 60s Greenwich Village scene, is hard work. Cold, penniless, and with a rapidly dwindling supply of couches to sleep on, we witness Llewyn’s artistic idealism clash with a harsher reality. At the same time our expectations as an audience are challenged by the reality of the Coen brothers’ vision. At first glance Llewyn appears to be the archetypal charismatic underdog, but it quickly becomes apparent that most of his suffering is self-inflicted and there seems to be little chance of redemption. We have a character that is as cold and uninviting as the snow lined streets he haunts and like Llewyn, we are left seeking a sense of comfort only to encounter doors being slammed shut.
As a character, Llewyn may be difficult to warm to, but he is incessantly thought-provoking. Oscar Isaac excels in the role, oozing a despondent yet defiant air that colours the whole film. Isaac’s musical performances in the film are incredible, and act as a kind of counterweight to his character’s more exacting aspects. The film follows a week of Llewyn’s life, and again the conventions are bucked – the days consists of repeating the same unfulfilling gigs in Greenwich Village, and repeating the same disappointing conversations with his agent. Trapped in a rut, when opportunities arise they inevitably lead back to the same place. Llewyn’s journey is a bizarre one that can easily arouse a feeling of frustration, as we see the landscape change, but never the character.
The Coen’s trademark black humour is here, but in a diluted form. The louder, more cartoonish characters that accentuate many of their films are noticeably absent and instead we’re faced with a muted and grim world complete with desaturated colours and shadows that almost threaten to swallow up scenes. The supporting cast serves to add both comic relief and to propel the narrative, with Carey Mulligan and John Goodman bringing good performances to quite limited roles, and Justin Timberlake proving that his voice can work outside pop music. But ultimately this is Llewyn Davis’ show, a fact that is simultaneously a blessing and a curse for the viewer. For all his potential, Llewyn seems destined to remain in the shadows – perhaps happy in his own way to occupy that space, or perhaps a necessary and tragic by-product in the evolution of a burgeoning genre.
The unconventionality of both the protagonist and the story do not stop Inside Llewyn Davis being a solid film, but it does make it a rather more difficult one to watch. By bucking expectations and confronting us with sobering visions of a reality that we often shy away from, the film forces us to question our sense of heroic destiny, both on screen and off screen. The real gem at the heart of the story is that it allows itself to remain open to interpretation and in the end we are left with a flawed but wonderfully crafted monument to the darker side of human experience. Like a good folk song, the film is bound to evoke feelings of dissatisfaction, melancholy, and woe – but maybe that’s just what it is like inside Llewyn Davis.
Published in Gazette Group titles (Swords Gazette, Malahide Gazette, Blanchardstown Gazette, Castleknock Gazette, Dundrum Gazette, Dun Laoghaire Gazette, Lucan Gazette, Clondalkin Gazette) on 30th Jan 2014.