Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writers/directors/brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have been pulling a long chain of successful movies from their spangled sleeves (The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and so on) since the mid-eighties. Recognisable by their droll scripts and a meticulously composed mise-en-scène, the films of Hollywood’s foremost frères have yielded unique and immersive worlds.
The Coens’ latest outing keeps more than true to form with a rich reproduction of Greenwich Village, 1961. It sits you at your table in the Gaslight Café, hands you a cup of something suitably dark and steamy, and absorbs you in a week in the melancholy life of a struggling folk singer called Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac).
The morose drama and its superb soundtrack open on Llewyn’s start-to-finish rendition of “Hang me, Oh Hang Me”. Isaac performs with an impressive singing voice and fluency on the guitar before exiting on the dry sign-off, “if it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song”. Llewyn’s post-gig adage relates as much to the gloomy musician himself as his resonant verses; he too seems to exist outside of time, stuck on his trajectory towards – where, exactly? He shuffles in wet socks from one borrowed couch to the next, pilfers meals and loses friends’ cats along the way. Meanwhile, times are-a-changing, and there’s little room left in record shops for sullen, bearded men and their knackered Gibsons.
“You’re the one who’s not going anywhere. You don’t wanna get anywhere,” Llewyn’s pregnant ex Jean (Carey Mulligan) hisses – and she’s right. Llewyn turns down his big break in Chicago, and damningly opts out of royalties for the (s)hit single “Please Mr Kennedy” with only short-term emolument in mind. It’s as if Llewyn takes some masochistic pleasure from being a complete unknown with no direction home.
The picture’s brown-grey palette and bleak tones evoke Withnail & I and merge this with the lyrical delights of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens’ own bluegrass retelling of Homer’s Iliad. But our epic hero refuses outright to be Ulysses – a role hilariously reserved for a marmalade moggy and his parallel New York odyssey.
For all his scenes’ protracted close-up shots, rarely do we get a real look “inside” Llewyn Davis. He’s more often seen, as mean Jean puts it, being an asshole. Aside from an upstaging cat, it’s only a comparison with the secondary characters surrounding Llewyn that sees him become likable at all. They’re either sickeningly saccharine, like Stark Sands’ cereal-munching Troy, or pure evil; enter John Goodman as a snoring and sneering jazz-Cyclops. Elsewhere, former ‘N Sync member Justin Timberlake’s self-parody as Jim the sell-out mainstreamer tops off an indispensable ensemble.
Oscar Isaac breathes charisma into Llewyn Davis, a compelling protagonist whose aimless journey bends the film into a full circle. And this is a journey not to be missed. An ode to James Joyce and Bob Dylan, the Coens’ rags-to-rags story of an artist in the cold is funny, captivating, and transcends the seasons – Awards or otherwise – like a favourite folk song.