The Coen brothers are in vintage form in their new feature Inside Llewyn Davies. What is most impressive about the film (a premiere in the Cannes competition at the weekend) is the sure-footed way the Coens combine comedy, music and brooding film noir elements. This is ostensibly a film about the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early 1960s, just before the coming of Bob Dylan, but it is far richer than such a description might suggest.
Llewyn Davis (brilliantly played by Oscar Isaac) is an ambitious but hapless folk singer with a very chaotic private life. He has seemingly made fellow folk singer Jean Berkey (an enjoyably spiky Carey Mulligan, moving on from her role as Daisy in The Great Gatsby) pregnant. She is in a relationship with a friend of his (played in solemn fashion by Justin Timberlake) and is furious at the predicament he has put her in.
The structure of the film seems partially inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses. The story is set in the dead of winter over only a few days but still has an epic quality. Like Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s novel, Davis ricochets around the city, having misadventures. He loses a friend’s cat. He has nowhere to stay. Needing a gig, he eventually heads off to Chicago on a road trip with a thoroughly obnoxious jazz musician (John Goodman) and his Dean Moriarty-like sidekick (Garrett Hedlund.)
We’re never quite sure how talented Davis actually is. The opening of the film shows him singing a beautiful and haunting solo but no sooner has he finished his performance than he is beaten up in the back yard.
There are echoes here of Barton Fink. Like John Turturro’s tormented screenwriter, Davis endures increasingly strange and phantasmagoric experiences as he pursues success.
In the early scenes, the tone is comical. The Coens don’t skimp on the satire at the expense of the earnest, hipster folk crowd. At the same time, the music is often glorious.
Sometimes, the shifts in tone are jarring. We think we’re watching a comedy but when Davis embarks on his epic road trip to Chicago, the storytelling takes on an altogether darker hue. Goodman’s character, who has a cane and is made up to look like Dr John, is thoroughly grotesque. Davis becomes increasingly desperate. You might expect that his misadventures will give him the experience on which to base new songs. However, The Coens refuse to adhere to the rags-to-riches stories.
The film is open-ended and deliberately confounds our expectations at every turn. It’s as mercurial as its own lead character, who can seem like a self-pitying, aggressive bore one moment and sing like an angel the next.