It’s the ’60s, a particularly cold February in New York, and Llewyn Davis is not having a good time. He is a folk singer, hoping to make a break in Greenwich Village but his singing partner has committed suicide and, despite his efforts to break into the business on his own, his first solo record isn’t selling. Money is scarce, and he has no home; he has to resort to sleeping on his friends’ couches while the weather outside grows increasingly hostile.
Llewyn spends his evenings playing gigs at the Gaslight café, a basket house where musicians such as he hope to get paid from what the audience is willing to contribute. Interestingly, many of the places (including this café) and biographical details (the film is partly based on the experiences of folk singer Dave Van Ronk), are taken from real life. There is even a very poignant moment towards the end when a (then-unknown) Bob Dylan pops up. However, the achievement of the Coens in writing this film comes from their seamless blending of real-life with their own fictional extensions, all with a sharp eye for period detail.
This is Oscar Isaac’s debut role and he has evidently been overlooked as an acting talent. Singing all of his songs, mostly live, is an achievement in itself but it is his performance that really stands out. His character is a deadbeat with an unappreciated talent and an unfortunate tendency of screwing up (as his friend’s partner Jean – a wonderfully arch Carey Mulligan – puts it, “Everything you touch turns to shit!”). He’s difficult to like but impossible not to sympathize with. He is tired, worn down by the endless ‘soldiering-on’ without actually getting anywhere, as his life falls to pieces.
Special mention must be made of the cinematography (for which the film has received one of only two Oscar nominations). Bruno Delbonnel, who shot the much-loved Amelie, creates an atmosphere of pale, hazy colours, of cold winter light and smoky nightclubs. Llewyn’s world is one of narrow, whitewashed corridors in apartment buildings and roads that seem to stretch beyond the horizon, leading nowhere. As we watch, we wonder how long he will be able to continue struggling and whether things will begin to look up. In a lesser movie, the answer to that question would be predictable, but the Coen Brothers are too clever, and care too much about their characters to allow for such a straight-forward, cathartic ending.
To make film-making of this quality seem as effortless as the Coen Brothers do requires extraordinary skill. Only three years after their successful remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit, and only eight since the release of their most recent masterpiece, No Country For Old Men, they have hit the ground running yet again. The extended road-journey in the second third of the film is arguably some of their finest work, and an entire essay could be written about that ginger cat. Inside Llewyn Davis is a film unassuming in its brilliance, tightly focused and incredibly deep, with a light touch and a great wealth of deadpan humour. It is honest, achingly sad and near-perfect.