With what is now16 feature films, the Coen Brothers have carved out a reputation for idiosyncratic and frequently droll portraits of rather glum characters navigating a world that shifts between absurdly incomprehensible and fatally unforgiving. The eponymous protagonist of the Coens’ new film is the latest addition to a long line of such sufferers.
Played by Guatemalan-born actor and singer Oscar Isaac, Llewyn Davis – loosely modelled on folk singer Dave Van Ronk – is a struggling musician living in 1960s New York, sleeping on friends’ couches between gigs and chasing up non-existent royalties from his stingy producer. These stresses are exacerbated by the lingering trauma of having lost his old music partner to suicide, and the more immediate emergency of losing a friend’s cat – to say nothing of the possibility that he’s impregnated another pal’s girlfriend (Carey Mulligan). Add a subplot involving Llewyn’s former career as a merchant seaman, and we might say that the tide’s against him.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a loving reconstruction of the era’s folk revival, which preceded the scene’s more explicitly political engagements and the rise of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Part musical, part road movie, part coming-of-age tale, the film sustains a curious if suitably folksy air, unfolding with that tonally ambiguous and even politically ambivalent detachment for which the writer-director siblings are known.
Outwardly melancholic and yet increasingly comical – especially when Llewyn rides to Chicago with a gargantuan jazz musician (John Goodman) and his monosyllabic valet – the film is an unexpectedly topical affair. Aided by the generally morose musical numbers – which the Coens allow to play in full – the film demonstrates a refreshing compassion for its young central character, an unremarkable, ordinary lad reluctant to assume the burdens of responsibility that life has thrust upon him. And there’s enough here to make life relatably hard.
But what of it? If there’s a real-world seriousness here that eluded some of their more easily categorised comedies, the Coens have for too long cruised by without much of an interest in current affairs. Indeed, one suspects that prevailing predicaments may very well overwhelm them. As their latest develops into another rootlessly episodic odyssey (complete with a cat called Ulysses), a strange observation creeps in: that for all its formal control and technical care, Inside Llewyn Davis is all the more alarmingly joyless for being set in such a deliberately unsolvable world.