They do good losers, do the brothers Coen. A cinema of oxymorons has been built by Joel and Ethan, a pair of filmmakers who have perfected the art of the lethargic and the downbeat, in a series of films spanning two decades and a half. Inside Llewyn Davis slots right in to place in a pack of wildcards spearheaded by Barton Fink and home to Herbert I. “Hi” McDunnough and Jeff Lebowski. The eponymous figure around which Inside Llewyn Davis is centred is a hapless troubadour in the days of Greenwich Village and the modern folk boom.
The film is elevated by an impressive cast. It’s easy to criticise an actor like Justin Timberlake for being too shiny, or one like Carey Mulligan for being the opposite, but under the glow of the Coen’s direction both excel. Oscar Isaac, an actor in search of a role like this for some years has come through the spectacle of Scott and Snyder (Ridley and Zack) and in to his own as the eponymous Davis. His is one of the great performances of the season, and, in a quirk of fate worthy of his on-screen parallel, has unfairly gone unnoticed in the major awards ceremonies. It’s apt that in a tale of ambition realised that a star is born.
Such terminology (“A Star Is Born”) is at home in a film which draws many an illusion to the musical. While ground in a world which plays to the rules of the diegetic, emotional punctuation comes in the form of several musical set pieces. The tunes, an array of traditional songs and mongrel reworkings of existing numbers are a particular highlight. As is the comedic tone. The film is very funny, with biting asides thrown at the film’s lead (“You don’t look Welsh”), only to be met by faux-befuddlement slung back (“flying cars?”). A beautifully realised scenario houses these literal elements. Bruno Delbonnel replaces the Coen’s usual cinematographer Roger Deakins, and follows his own tradition of capturing an era in extraordinary fashion (Delbonnel in the past lensed Amélie and the well-placed-if-otherwise-flawed Dark Shadows).
One is drawn in by a sense of familiarity that is dislodged by a pair of wicked plot revelations. Thoughts turn to Joyce and Akerman, and the sense of everything being about something and nothing at the same time, and the cyclical nature of the world at large. Fate is rejected, denied even, but remains omnipresent. It’s masterful stuff, and a subtly emotional sideswipe, such is the universally relatable persona of Llewyn Davis.