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Inside Llewyn Davis, film review: 'One of the Coen brothers' most idiosyncratic movies'

A very intimate portrait of a singer who is going absolutely nowhere
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Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the Coen brothers’ richest and most idiosyncratic films, a tragicomic epic about a Greenwich village folk singer down on his luck. The film manages the unlikely feat of staying respectful toward the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s while being gently satirical about folk subculture in general.

The plotting seems whimsical – much of the drama hinges on a missing cat – and yet the storytelling has a deep melancholic undertow. The period detail is meticulous (the film-makers go to great lengths to get everything from the haircuts and beards to the polar necks and the duffel coats just right) but the themes are universal. In their eccentric fashion, the Coens are dealing with artistic ambition, compromise and despair.

If Homer’s Odyssey was the starting point for the Coens’ earlier feature O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), James Joyce’s Ulysses is a clear inspiration here. Llewyn Davis (played in engagingly forlorn and comic fashion by Oscar Isaac) is a Leopold Bloom-like wanderer. He locks himself out of an apartment early on and is left to roam the city.

Right at the outset, the Coens throw in a scene in which Llewyn is beaten up by a stranger in a dark hat outside a folk club. The reason for this assault only becomes apparent toward the end of the film but it signals just how hapless their lead character is.

Llewyn is so poor he doesn’t even have a winter overcoat. His elderly agent is exasperated by him. His fellow folk singer Jean Berkey (a foul-mouthed Carey Mulligan), who goes out with his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), is furious because she is pregnant and thinks he might be the father. “Everything you touch turns to shit, like King Midas’s idiot brother,” she screeches at him. It seems a fair enough assessment, given that bad luck dogs him. He used to sing with a partner, Mike, who killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

Inside Llewyn Davis star Carey Mulligan keen for Downton Abbey role

One reason that the film has been largely overlooked in this year’s Oscar nominations is surely that its storyline is so unconventional. It takes place over a period of roughly a week. Llewyn Davis (reportedly based on the real-life folk singer Dave Van Ronk) spends most of that time going around in circles. As Jean points out, “the same shit” keeps happening to him.

Llewyn has a certain amount of talent... but probably not enough. He keeps on hustling and has the initiative to eke out a little money from a recording session. In one of the film’s stranger interludes, he even travels to Chicago to meet a legendary producer, Bud Grossman (F Murray Abraham), who he hopes will give him a break. This is a film about talent drifting off into mediocrity and dashed hopes. Llewyn’s perseverance is his most heroic quality but there is no sense that it will ever get him very far. The humiliations mount.

He is given a vision of what his future might hold when he drives across country with a thoroughly obnoxious, cane-wielding, Dr John-like musician (John Goodman), who despises him. “Folk singer with a cat. Are you queer?” Goodman sneers. “In jazz, you know, we play all the notes – 12 notes on the scale, dip shit, not three chords on a ukulele.”

The cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, whose previous credits include Amélie and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, shoots early 1960s New York in crisp, desaturated fashion. The film is set in the dead of winter. There are many humorous moments but the tone is too bleak for this ever simply to seem like comedy. The Coens are dealing with suicide, abortion, and their lead character’s ongoing professional failure. The film would seem very dark indeed if it wasn’t for Isaac’s performance. For all his vanity and irresponsibility, Isaac’s Llewyn retains a child-like innocence – and he does at least try to find the missing cat.

There are frequent close-ups of Llewyn,  sitting on a subway train or in a car in which he has been abandoned without the keys or even in a toilet cubicle, looking utterly bewildered at the course his life has taken. The Coens don’t skimp on making him suffer. This is an “inside” view of Llewyn and that means we are privy to every minor indignity he suffers. He is the type of character whose socks get soaked in the snow; who will be moved along by a cop if he tries to rest in a railway station; and who will be treated badly by waitresses in a diner where he has gone for coffee. Even his jokes fall flat.

The film is set on the cusp of a musical revolution, one that we can only guess will make Llewyn seem yet less relevant. It’s the start of the 1960s. Bob Dylan (spotted briefly in the final reel) is about to transform folk music. In the new order, there will be little demand for bearded folk singers with acoustic guitars singing songs that – as Llewyn himself quips – are “never new and never get old”.

A sentimental view is that this is the Coens’ tribute to the small-timers who were an essential part of the 1960s music scene and Llewyn is best viewed as an unsung hero. The folk music itself, overseen by their regular collaborator T Bone Burnett, is performed beautifully. However, this is also a chronicle of failure – a very intimate portrait of a singer who is going absolutely nowhere.