Joel and Ethan Coen’s back catalogue of prolific and verisimilitude style film-making has so far left a somewhat intimidating body of work that has been able to document their ability to merge abstract narrative with an oft surrealist conceptual view on the human condition.
Where Barton Fink was able to explore the neuroses of a screen-writer in creative limbo – manifested as a self-imposed purgatorial exile caught between the annals of heaven and hell – more recent achievements such as A Serious Man captured the superficial woes of a middle aged high-school teacher whose inability to come to terms with his own identity leaves him at the centre of an existential and domestic crisis.
The absurdities of life are a topic of discussion clearly never far from the subconscious of the Coen Brothers, something which is self-evident from the get-go of Inside Llewyn Davis.
The film is loosely based on folk singer Dave Van Ronk’s memoirs ‘The Mayor of MacDougal Street’ in what has been described as a ‘screwball tragedy’ by leading man Oscar Isaac. This almost contradictory sense of dichotomy is something which is very much at the core of the film with a wonderful central performance from Isaac who is captivating throughout.
While Llewyn gets himself into almost Buster Keaton-esque slapstick scenarios – relentlessly pursuing a friend’s cat through the streets of Greenwich Village – this is then polarised by the tender nature of his ailing relationship with fellow musician and muse, Jean, played by Carey Mulligan with an almost pastiche homage to Joan Baez.
The film begins with budding musician Llewyn showcasing his folk troubadour style of acoustic Americana in a smoky Greenwich Village coffeehouse when he is then beaten within an inch of his life in a bleakly comical and unexpected turns of events.
This is a somewhat poignant scene which highlights the temporary and almost transient nature of Llewyn’s limited success so far within the music industry, as he struggles aimlessly from one day to the next, sleeping on friend’s couches and bumming cigarettes as he goes.
The cyclical nature of Llewyn’s life that unravels as the film gathers momentum is almost viewed as a creative framework for his own legacy. In what would normally appear to highlight his plight to become a successful folk singer instead shows the reality or, in this case, rut that inspired and informed his creative outlook.
French writer Marcel Proust once remarked upon the years in which he struggled tirelessly were in fact those in which he was able to learn the most about himself through his ability to document and thus gain perspective on his life.
This is a sentiment which eerily parallels Llewyn’s seemingly futile journey and is carefully nuanced with an excellent portrayal of the Greenwich Village folk scene, while capturing the social and creative anxieties felt by those who populated it just before an ambitious upstart named Bob Dylan was able to galvanise the 60s folk boom.
IMDb: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.