The Coen brothers’ movies have always been weird, unpredictable, neurotic, always funny and never depressing. So it’s quite surprising when you discover that Inside Llewyn Davis is their bleakest, saddest film to date. The change in tone didn’t seem to have had any effect on quality though, because the Coens are in top form as always.
Set in NYC in the 60’s the film chronicles the titular character Davis, a struggling folk musician (played to grim perfection by Oscar Isaac), who is having a hard time keeping up with his famous father’s reputation and paying the rent. Davis couch surfs his way through life, often depending on friends, exes and the generosity of rich acquaintances who render him some token remuneration in exchange for a song or two. His life takes a big turn when he pursues an escaped ginger cat across the city and re-examines his struggle and his life’s purpose. The cat is a wonderful little metaphor and anyone who has had a tussle with following their passion and making money out of it will be able to connect with Davis and his problems.
For the first time in many years the Coens work without Roger Deakins and there’s a significantly different mood to the film. Bruno Delbonell (Amelie) shoots in icy cold NYC and the imagery is powerful enough to give you the chills. The photography really takes you inside the lonely isolated yet hopeful headspace of Davis as he chases the cat around town. You get to feel what Davis goes through. You get to experience every agonizing disappointment that Davis faces. You can see the pain, the hunger to succeed and the distinct shadow of hopelessness in Davis’ eyes. When Davis meets a host of helpful and selfish people who all want to make it in the industry you realize in a way he is selfish too, for sticking with his plan and not getting a proper job and mooching off his friends’ couches to live. The quirky black humor typical of the Coens does show up in spurts, and the comedic moments are so welcome you end up laughing harder than intended.
Isaac, who was last seen in tiny parts in Sucker Punch, Drive and a host of forgettable films is given the role of his lifetime here. He’s completely committed to his role and you can tell he’s worked really hard to channel his own struggles as someone trying to peddle his talents across the film industry. It’s a tough role because Isaac is faced with the task of making Davis likable instead of pitiable, and he pulls it off. The soundtrack is as good as the supporting cast. The scene where Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake sing ‘500 miles’ will give you the goosebumps. Like the rest of the movie, the scene is a deeply moving, authentic portrayal of an artist scuffling to showcase his art to the world. Whether or not you can relate to it, you need to watch it on the big screen to appreciate its tragic beauty.
(First published in Mid Day)