The ‘struggling artist’ is a character who can easily draw compassion. The Coens instead paint their 1960s New York folk musician as irresponsible and aloof but through the subtleties of their direction and the wonderful despondency of Oscar Isaacs’s stare, his unlikability translates into a strange empathy which makes for a charming and completely unsentimental drama.
We’re first introduced to Davis waking up in somebody else’s flat, eating their eggs when its occupants have no doubt gone out to work long before. He opens the door and accidentally lets the cat escape, locking himself out in the process. He lives the life of a recluse in the midst of the Greenwich folk scene, forcing himself on one friend’s sofa to the next, amidst the recent death of his musical partner and his many fractured relationships, particularly with his ex-girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) whose embittered demeanour conveys everything we need to know about their past, without giving much away verbally.
It’s probably one of the least blatant ‘films by the Coen brothers’ that they’ve made, slower, giving itself more space to pick feelings rather than being decorated with surreal, intelligent dialogue. That’s not say it doesn’t have it’s incredible deadpan comic moments, not least during a recording session that Davis performs for a much needed pay-cheque alongside fellow Greenwich folksters played by Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver, the former having composed a radio friendly song for the trio to record which is both gut burstingly hilarious and simultaneously catchy thanks to the latter’s incredible harmonious yelps. Davis inevitably requests cash in hand, signing away future royalties only for the song to inevitably become a hit. Isaacs is an attractive, moody screen presence with and without his guitar and the music is consistently strong, forming a natural part of the drama.
It’s a film that could have captured a bittersweet romanticism with a particular time in music, but instead flips expectations completely by feeling utterly unsentimental. I’m not sure if music is everything to Davis, or quite what exactly his deceased partner meant to him, or if he quite knows what he wants in the world at all. I would almost goes as far as to call the film nihilistic, even the fate of Davis’s cat hardly adds up to the cutesy buddy-romance we’re initially promised. Yet it is funny in a way only the Coen’s can do, which I’m aware contradicts my earlier statement regarding how this stylistically fits into their catalogue. It ends with the holy figure of the Greenwich folk scene taking stage at a grotty bar, reminding us just how insignificant Davis’s music really is, regardless of how much we’ve enjoyed it. None of it really matters anymore. Does it really matter to Davis and more importantly, where does he go from here?
Review by David Rank
MFR Rating: 4/5
Inside Llewyn Davis is out now in the UK and US. Running time 104 mins. Certificate 15 (UK).