Thirty years after their debut, Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers are still making great films. Inside Llewyn Davis, their sixteenth, oozes class. Acting, dialogue, soundtrack, cinematography – all are superb. Viewers expecting a conventional plot and resolution, however, will be disappointed. This is not a feelgood popcorn movie. More like a feelsad film with cats and scrambled egg.
The scene is Greenwich Village, New York, 1961. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a singer-songwriter trying to make ends meet on the folk circuit. At the start of the film he performs at the Gaslight Café and is well-received by a reverential audience. He is obviously a soulful singer and a talented finger-picking guitarist. But the times they are a-changing. He is being left behind by more commercial acts like young soldier Troy, with his crowd-pleasing song, 500 Miles. Or Justin Timberlake’s Jim, with his thrillingly silly Please Mr. Kennedy.
The film charts Llewyn’s week-long odyssey of woe. He is so broke he sleeps on friends’ sofas, unable to afford a winter coat in the icy New York winter. He gets beaten up by a stranger. He loses a ginger cat we later learn is called Ulysses. He finds a different cat, tries unsuccessfully to give it back to Ulysses’ owners (‘this is not our cat. Where’s its scrotum?’). His promiscuous ex-girlfriend, Jean (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant and angry with him: he is ‘King Midas’s idiot brother’ because everything he touches turns to shit.
Llewyn upsets his sister by swearing in the house. In fact, he upsets most of the quirky characters he meets on his journey. He faces adversity with a tired stoicism, only properly losing his temper when women with long grey hair start singing.
During the ‘road movie’ section of the film our antihero hitches a lift to Chicago with his cat and guitar. Sharing the trip are John Goodman, playing a scary goatee-bearded jazz enthusiast, and a young beatnik who only says ‘yup.’ Goodman despises folk music (‘three chords on a ukulele’) and threatens Llewyn with voodoo: ‘I know the dark arts.’ At a gas station restroom Llewyn stares at graffiti which reads ‘what are you doing?’
In Chicago he auditions for a record producer, Mr Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). His verdict: ‘I don’t see a lot of money here; you’re no frontman.’
‘I had a partner’, replies Llewyn.
‘Get back together,’ advises Grossman.
Unfortunately this is impossible, as his former partner has committed suicide.
Back in New York, Llewyn tries to go back to working as a merchant seaman but is frustrated by license problems and paperwork. In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, he visits his father, who was also a seaman, in a rest home. In response to his father’s blank silence, Llewyn sings him a fishing folk song and manages to animate the old man’s face, if not quite provoke him into speech.
If you think this all sounds relentlessly depressing, it isn’t. This being a Coen Brothers film, the misery is frequently hilarious. And, apart from the cats, there are musical interludes to lighten the tone, including a harmony group in matching Aran sweaters who look like fingers of shortbread. But most of all it is the authentic, soulful and moving live performances of Oscar Isaac which make Inside Llewyn Davis special. Before he became an actor, Isaac played lead guitar and sang vocals in The Blinking Underdogs. Llewyn’s final song seems to feed off all the suffering he has endured and offers a kind of redemption. I saw the film with my teenage daughter and it made her cry.