It is always fun to root for the underdog, and unlucky losers often find a place in movie-goers hearts. Mix this theory with the quirkiness of Joel and Ethan Coen and we have ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’; a tale of a folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village who so nearly makes it again and again, described amusingly as being ‘like King Midas’s idiot brother’. Partly based around the memoir of Dave Van Ronk, the film captures an essence of the scene through its nondescript yet pleasant palette and melodic narrative. Oscar Isaac stars in the eponymous role and the Coen brothers write and direct with a knowing flair, scenes flowing together like tracks on an ambitious concept album creating a flawed central character who rarely makes the right choices but we’re happy to follow him wherever he goes.
As the title suggests, the story tracks the protagonist’s every move and Llewyn is, in effect, the plot. For the most part, we see him dossing in the spare rooms, cars or on the couches of the subplots, bumming cigarettes along the way. This pay-as-you-go lifestyle lends the film a disjointed structure, if you can even call it that, and like his budding career, it struggles to go anywhere. This unconventional approach to storytelling may not appeal to some but I felt it only added to its charm. One constant however, is a ginger cat in which Llewyn finds himself responsible for after accidentally locking it out of its owner’s flat without a key to let it back in. What initially appear as a passing moment gradually becomes the glue which holds the tender piece together. The cat, in a way, represents the responsibility that Llewyn does not want to face up to, unwilling to admit that his dream of making it in the industry may not become a reality. This idea of a creative soul’s expressiveness going unnoticed is universal and this theme forms a resonation with the audience, and with anyone whose efforts have fallen on deaf ears.
Casting Oscar Isaac in the titular part works well as it allows him to find a balance between his acting talent and musical prowess, passing on both counts with flying colours. He has an effortless quality in his portrayal which suits the character and his voice is mesmerising in the performance sections whether on stage at the local smoky bar or crooning awkwardly to guests at a dinner party. He is joined by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as friends and folk duo Jim and Jean, who both do well in providing one of the soundtrack highlights ‘500 Miles’. Scenes shared between Isaac and Mulligan have a great energy, their bickering arguments fuelled by wasted talent and missed opportunities are both touching and funny which is no mean feat. Coen brothers favourite John Goodman rounds off the impressive supporting cast as loudmouth jazz musician Roland Turner, an interesting yet unimportant turn which sadly serves as no more than an extended cameo appearance.
Despite the well crafted cinematography and sharp script we’ve come to expect from the Coens, the infectious music is what really gives the film an edge. Filling the gaps between his episodic moments of failure are the heartfelt tracks which provide an excellent soundtrack to his struggles, the stand out tracks being Hang Me, Oh Hang Me and Fare Thee Well. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a film full of note perfect verses without a chorus and with no suspenseful crescendo, but I could listen to it on repeat all day.