Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from the Coen Brothers, is hardcore Coen and definitely not the film I’d choose to introduce someone to their extraordinary body of work. That said, for the hardcore Coen set, of which I am a card carrying member, the film is an absolute gem.
I am not a particular fan of the 1961 New York Greenwich Village folk music scene, around which this film is based, and it is testament to the Coen’s singular genius that I was held throughout by this Sisyphus-esque tale of an unquestionably talented musician desperately chasing the commercial success which keeps eluding him, in spite of many personal and professional setbacks. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is not a particularly likeable character, but he is an interesting one, and in spite of his selfish and somewhat obnoxious temperament we desperately want him to get a break – even though we are all but certain he will not.
Isaac is tremendous in the lead, whilst the likes of Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and John Goodman – a former Coen regular in his first film for them in some time – provide great support. The Coens pile on their regulation dark and quirky humour, wry observations and sense of the absurd, and if you are a fan of the music then you are in for a treat.
As with many of the Coen Brothers films, dissecting what it is actually about is problematic. Is this about the potential price of not compromising artistic principles? The agonies of being almost famous? Or is Llewyn labouring under a spiritual curse of some kind, making the Sisyphus analogy more apt? Whatever the thinking behind the film it certainly will not be for everyone – not least because of the large quantity of bad language contained herein. Oscar didn’t much like it either, which is a shame as it deserved to be nominated in Best Picture and Director categories.
Because this is hardcore, undiluted Coen – the Coens of A Serious Man, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Barton Fink rather than the Coens of True Grit, Intolerable Cruelty or Oh Brother Where Art Thou, it will be simply too arch and potentially depressing for some audiences. Ones ability to appreciate or indeed enjoy Inside Llewyn Davis will depend entirely on how “Coen” you are prepared to go. Personally I loved it.