I’ve always preferred small-scale Coen Brothers works rather than the big-scale crime epics or westerns. I like the intimacy they give us with a collection of characters that may look ordinary at first glance but prove themselves to be extraordinary (sometimes, extraordinary in their ordinariness) over the course or the film. Inside Llewyn Davis is small-scale Coens, focused on character rather than landscapes and melancholy comedy rather than tension.
Oscar Isaac stars as our title character; a guitarist and singer whose work never really took off. He’s not a bad looking guy, but there is something grey about the small amount of charisma he gives off. He feels like a man falling just when he should be soaring. It turns out the other part of his double act has died and he is struggling to make it as a solo artist.
His financial situationist is not good. He sleeps on people’s sofas and has to find money so his friend (Carey Mulligan, typically excellent) can abort his child. She is in a relationship with one of his friends (Justin Timberlake, surprisingly understated) and doesn’t want to give birth to a child that was the result of her unfaithful behaviour.
This wonderful little miracle of a movie is made possible by the perfect marrying of the Coen’s gift for slightly odd humour and their lead actor’s ability to be both heartbreaking and hilarious. Isaac, who appeared with Mulligan before in 2011’s Drive, is given that much needed chance to shine. In some ways, this movie will do for him the thing that his character so desperately needs: that one big break.
The most soul-searching part of the film occurs during a trip to Chicago, where our protagonist hitches a ride with an overweight old man (John Goodman) and an attractive young man (Garret Hedlund). All of the people in the car don’t fit into this world around them. They all seem like loose cogs struggling to turn in the direction that they are being pulled in. Hedlund’s role is also feels like an intelligent, self-aware reference to his turn in On the Road. His presence feels like the ghost of a Kerouac-esque free-spirit, but one that has been worn down by time and disenchanted by the lack of satisfaction in life.
Consistently funny, quietly haunting and memorable in a strange and intimate way, this is another Coen-helmed masterpiece, and one which they can proudly add to their ever-growing collection. You can expect Oscars.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), directed by The Coen Brothers, is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival this October. It is released in cinemas by StudioCanal in January 2014.