Following the Coen brothers faithfully through their 16-movie odyssey, you learn a few things. Like, for every big, blackly comic crowd pleaser they create (Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading), there will eventually be a smaller, more sombre picture (The Man Who Wasn’t There, A Serious Man). This exquisitely melancholy and moody character portrait of a down-on-his luck ’60s folksinger finding cold comfort in Greenwich Village (it’s a movie of chilly winds and biting truths) falls firmly into the ‘bleak’ category. The other thing you’ve learned is that the Coens love a failing protagonist, the more unsympathetic the better.
So, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a sardonic, self-sabotaging asshole, careless with girls (Carey Mulligan’s one-note songbird subjects him to a number of ripe rants) and effectively King Midas in reverse. His intransigence, and his disdain for the space-flight novelty song (‘Please Mr. Kennedy’) he records with Justin Timberlake’s self-effacingly amiable hack, bring back memories of Barton Fink, another prickly artist savaged by showbiz.
If it’s occasionally a hard movie to warm to, as it runs a wry, unforgiving eye over Llewyn’s disintegrating life and his unprepossessing gallery of fellow folkies, there’s an enormous amount to admire. Joel and Ethan Coen admit in the great Making Of feature that they recklessly strung the entire movie from a real-life anecdote about nearly-famous ’60s songster Dave Van Ronk being beaten up in a New York alley.
Despite appearing almost plotless, Llewyn’s sofa-surfing, work-chasing week unwinds expertly from here into purgatory, one awkward encounter after another. Peeling away to icy Chicago where Llewyn chases up F. Murray Abraham’s cynical promoter, it deftly becomes an atmospheric road movie, propelled by John Goodman’s pontificating junkie jazzman in a battered 1959 Chrysler Imperial as big as a whale.
These kind of nimble production design touches, also seen in the bohemian crash-pads and scruffy folk clubs, make the film a fascinating window into the clannish, mostly-forgotten pre-Dylan folk music scene. Shot in 40 days, on a far-from-lavish budget, the film’s elegantly downbeat mood is sustained by Bruno Delbonnel’s wintry, desaturated visuals, ironically based on the retro look of that iconic icy-street album cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Convinced that they’d never find an actor/singer of sufficient calibre, the Coens lucked out with Isaac, whose pissed-off, smart-mouthed performance is pitchperfect, as are his melancholy renditions of folk standards like ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’. The songs, recorded live on set, are usefully tender where the film is dour, and expertly marshalled by music maestro T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford. Their let’s-try-this recording sessions in the extras feature are just the kind of warm, let-the-good- times-roll events that you can barely imagine the controlled and cerebral Coens throwing…
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