Image: Studio Canal
Here is the Coen brothers’ first film since the 2010 remake of True Grit, and perhaps again that title would be appropriate. There is an almost bleary, ghostly hue to the screen throughout the duration of the film, the lighting ever so slightly blurring the image. It never comes completely into focus, which is certainly represented in the way the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) lives his life.
This is 1960s New York, Greenwich Village, and a Welsh-named, Hispanic looking Llewyn moves from sofa to sofa, friend to friend in continuing circles as he tries to make a career as a folk musician. Casting Isaac, of Guatemalan and Cuban descent, fits well with the issue of personal identity Llewyn has, unable to make a living as a folk singer but stolidly refusing to go back to his previous occupation as a merchant marine. One scene summarises this simply; Llewyn is in a toilet cubicle and looks to the side, seeing scribbled on the wall of the cubicle the question ‘what are you doing?’
Llewyn is the main focus of this film, but it doesn’t really have that much of a plot. The other characters swim in and out, never too closely focused on and the closest companion he has is the cat he finds himself lumbered with. His relationships with all of the human characters are strained because, for want of a better phrase, Llewyn is a complete and utter arse. When walking with Jean (Carey Mulligan), the owner of one of the many sofas he sleeps on, she describes him as ‘King Midas’ idiot brother,’ as everything he touches and everything he does seems to end badly. There is also a sheer audacity in asking a man (Justin Timberlake) whose girlfriend you’ve just gotten pregnant for money for the abortion.
Inside Llewyn Davis is darkly comic, with no real belly laughs, but that wouldn’t fit in quite as well with the bleak outlook of the film, although that word ‘bleak’ is not to be taken negatively. It may have a bleak theme and look but the film itself is a hugely enjoyable portrayal of a man unable to make or keep close connections with other humans, utterly lost in the world. There is a scene where Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean are invited up to the stage to sing; the camera switches from Llewyn to Jean and as she sings and makes eye contact with him, and instead of an intimate moment he looks confused and mouths ‘what?’ at her. Beautifully shot, well-acted and sadly mostly overlooked by this year’s Oscars, this is more than worth your time amongst the louder, brighter contenders.