Inside Llewyn Davis should again see the Coens compete for prizes at Cannes. Melancholy and funny, quirky and touching, it stands among their strongest work.
Set in 1961, the brothers' 16th movie follows Greenwich Village folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaacs in a star-making turn) as he crashes on friends’ couches and plays smoky dives for tiny purses and sparse applause.
This is the scene before Dylan a-changed the times, when Elvis ruled and any guys (or gals) who opted to strum guitars while choking their souls onto the sawdust were considered strangulated bums.
Davis schleps around New York with his guitar (and, in an inspired running gag, a ginger cat), then hitches to Chicago for a final fling at catching his break. The response to his impromptu audition is one of the film’s many highlights.
In terms of narrative, that’s about your lot, though there are sub-plots involving Davis having got his friend’s girl (Carey Mulligan) pregnant and his estrangement from his ill father.
The Coens fill in the spaces with beautifully judged observations, wry humour, typically colourful supporting characters (which include roles for John Goodman and Justin Timberlake), bizarro visual flourishes and, naturally, a slew of live stage performances, all of them terrific.
Bruno Delbonnel’s gorgeous visuals are etched on slate, and Ethan’s dialogue is precise and rhythmic but also alive. Like all of the Coens’ movies, Inside Llewyn Davis is crafted and calibrated but it contains a more organic quality than much of their work, placing it, stylistically, in the realm of Fargo and No Country For Old Men.
That said, the long drive to Chicago must rank as one of the brothers’ most controlled, theatrical and memorable scenes: never-ending highway, plummeting snow, red taillights, and Goodman’s Orson Welles-alike oddball alternatively sleeping and orating; it’s as surreal and hellish as the hotel scenes in Barton Fink.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a top-to-tail delight and the strongest movie to play in competition so far.