Coens’ cunning look inside the life of an outsider

Inside Llewyn Davis (7)

5 out of 6 stars

Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen;
US drama/music, 2013,
104 mins; Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan,
Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund
Premiered March 6
Playing Nationwide

Despite the film’s winter-set and overwhelmingly bleak, desaturated aesthetic, the overall atmosphere is not an oppressive one but instead creates an air of frustration.

This is the externalised inner-life of one Llewyn Davis (Isaac), a fictional Welsh/Italian-American singer-songwriter (shades of Bob Dylan and perhaps the welsh gloom of Dylan Thomas) who, during the early 1960s in a bubble of the resurgent folk genre, plays to East Village audiences in the then emerging Gaslight venue.

He’s nothing if not frustrated. The New York buildings and the smog that envelops the on-the-road exteriors prevent us from seeing beyond Llewyn’s immediate vicinity, just as he himself is unable to foresee his future and, as is pointed out to him, a life-plan is something he actively avoids contemplating. When pressed on the matter, he responds: “The Future? You mean like flying cars?”

Llewyn is one of a long line of the Coens’ loveable losers – or in some cases, hapless unfortunates: Barton Fink, The Dude, Larry Gopnik (from A Serious Man), H I  McDunnough (from Raising Arizona) – the list goes on.

For whatever reason, the Coens seem to revel in preventing their protagonists from progressing in life. Llewyn, being no exception to this rule, seems to be in his current homeless and penniless predicament, largely because of himself. Sure, his problems partly stem from a recent break with his recording partner, but as a female contemporary (Mulligan) warns, he will condemn himself to a life of repetitive struggle because that’s the life he wants.

Planning ahead is considered conformist and for squares like his sister and father. But of course, those unwilling to look ahead will trail in circles. This is brilliantly illustrated when the woefully penniless Llewyn is asked to perform guitar and backing vocals on a track called ‘The Future’ – he neglects to sign for the royalty entitlements, instead preferring to pocket some fast cash.

After a convincing display of Llewyn’s musical abilities we’re introduced to him in much the same way as Robert Altman presents Elliot Gould’s detective in The Long Goodbye – he’s woken by a hungry cat, whom our protagonist then obligingly feeds. It’s an effective way of getting us to like a character – after all, how better to show an otherwise melancholic brooder’s fuzzy side?

Llewyn feeds the cat, but inadvertently lets it out of the apartment he’s crashing in. He spends much of the film chasing the animal, losing it again or attempting to accommodate it in the houses and cars of other people. It’s possible that the cat represents Llewyn’s musical aspirations – held for a moment, beyond reach in the next.

What’s certain is that Llewyn learns little from his errors. It follows, for that reason, that he has a friendly arrangement with a doctor who has performed abortions on, presumably, several of Llewyn’s sexual partners – regularly enough for the pair to be on first-name terms.

In an apt echo of his part in On The Road, Garret Hedlund makes an appearance with Coen regular John Goodman, but Isaac is the reason to watch. He’s acutely aware of the film he’s in, never over-loading the comic moments, nor under-playing the drama. He remains compelling inside a perpetual fog of failure, smoke and nostalgia that would surely have swallowed a lesser presence. Is this a cautionary life lesson from the Brothers Coen?

Nothing so straight-forward.