No one makes movies like the Coen bros. Their innate sense of comedic timing, their ability to create worlds that feel both quirky and real as well as characters and dialogue that stay with you, they are masters of their craft. Their latest singular offering is the music drama Inside Llewyn Davis, a wonderfully melancholic, nostalgic and often hilarious tale of the week in the life of a talented musician in 1960s New York who is on the cusp of making it but never quite getting there.
It stars Oscar Isaac as the titular musician, an inherently unsympathetic character whom we nevertheless care about thanks to the brilliant writing by the brothers Coen and the performance of Isaac, bringing a soulful humanity to the character that makes him as fascinating to watch as he is strangely enjoyable to be around.
Throughout their career the Coens have managed to effortlessly flit between serious and offbeat; from the dark Blood Simple and No Country for Old Men to the more light-hearted Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, they’re nothing if not diverse. This is perhaps closer to their underrated 2009 effort A Serious Man than anything else they’ve made in terms of tone and its insular, some might even say innately unlikeable leading character who, whether physically or emotionally, seems closed off from the world even as he tries his best be part of it.
Thanks to the Coens’ comfortingly eclectic array of characters – played by newcomers to their films like Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan to familiar faces like stalwart John Goodman – and a script that somehow makes something as simple as asking to stay on a friend’s couch or keeping track of a pet cat entertaining, the film is a joy to sit through from start to finish but works on more than just the level of quirkiness for which it so often aims. It’s funny in a way only the Coens can achieve, not only with their inimitable dialogue but their moments of comedic absurdism and even whimsy that, in lesser hands, may come off as irksome.
Much like a lot of their films, it’s one that will lend itself very much to rewatches so that you can pick up on all the little details you can feel are in there but may have missed on first viewing, especially considering how notoriously particular they are with their dialogue. Even so, on first viewing there’s much to love, from its absolutely stunning cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince) to the fantastic performances, frequently hilarious dialogue and that beautifully achieved vein of melancholia that runs throughout it.
And that’s before we even get to the music. Produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett, its pre-Dylan folk soundtrack – based on the music of Dave Van Ronk and largely sung by the cast in full-length i.e. more than just a bit of the chorus, as we often find – sounds sublime. From the longing and hopeful “Fare Thee Well” to the hilarious novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” it’s one of those films where the soundtrack is just as effective within as it is on its own.
The film takes you on a strange little episodic musical journey, even if its only between the couches of friends and acquaintances, “in the five boroughs who isn’t pissed at me,” as he despondently describes it. Underneath the surface there’s a darkness to the film, a palpable sense of morose disappointment of a clearly talented musician never quite achieving the level of success promised by the American dream.
The Coen bros. have done it again. A magnificent mix of drama, comedy, music, depth and whimsy all rolled up into something that looks beautiful and sounds even better. They’ve created another instantly iconic film that’s somehow intrinsically linked to what they’ve made before but also wholly unique and one that will leave you pondering for days after.