There’s a moment, nearing the latter stages of the Coen brothers’ new film, when the title character, played by Oscar Isaac, trudges through the snow towards camera. He is sheltering himself from the wind and cold, lugging a guitar and looking miserable, his shoes utterly unsuitable for the snow, and his ankles showing. To either side of Llewyn lies uncovered asphalt, easier to walk on and less freezing. It goes ignored. This sums up a lot of Llewyn’s character, and the tone of the film. We see a character we have come to like behaving utterly stupidly, but cannot bring ourselves to actually change opinions on him.
The Coen brothers are no strangers to awards, but Inside Llewyn Davis has been notably slighted by the Academy, not earning a Best Picture nomination (instead it has been offered Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing). When the Cannes Film Festival logo flits up as the film starts, to remind you that it was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix, basically second place, it is perhaps a reminder to take it seriously.
And seriously is how it deserves to be treated. This is a sterling effort from arguably the greatest living and producing filmmakers, with stinging comedy and depths of feeling. Llewyn is a talented but struggling musician plying his trade in Greenwich Village, New York, in 1961. The film follows his attempts to, effectively, make it, as he maneuvers around various friends’ couches to sleep on and tries to persuade labels to sign him. Oscar Isaac imbues his character with a frailty and a cattiness (more on that later), which at times is extremely sympathetic and at other times is openly unlikeable. He interacts with a cast of other musicians, from Carey Mulligan to Justin Timberlake, as well as the obligatory role for John Goodman as impossibly grouchy Roland Turner.
The plot is carried by the sort of coincidences and calamities which the Coens are so fantastic at. Here, Llewyn has an early interaction with the cat of some upper-middle class friends, taking custody of said feline as it escapes their apartment. The cat has been much discussed, flitting in and out of the film tantalisingly, sometimes seeming to carry Llewyn’s luck with it. To discuss much more of the occurrences would be to ruin delightful surprises.
Another feature of the film is its music, and it is a clearly foregrounded part of the movie. Inside Llweyn Davis opens with Oscar Isaac singing in a club, and plays out the whole song; when he finishes, you’ll feel obliged to somehow show the same appreciation as the audience onscreen, such is the quality. All but one of the performances in the film were filmed live, and this gives it an authenticity that impresses.
Inside Llewyn Davis is yet another wonderful film from the Coens, full of great performances at every level of prominence (Adam Driver is wonderfully comical for example). The script is endearing and amusing, and the characters all walk the line of likeable or alienating. That it has been lost slightly in buzz of other, more publicised films is disappointing.
Inside Llewyn Davis is now showing at the Phoenix Picturehouse.