Like Once, the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis stops dead every moment it lingers on one of its stunning musical performances. They are, literally, show-stopping. And it’s through them that we learn most about Llewyn Davis’s soul. Like the best of their creations, he is flawed: a man with an over-inflated ego, little gratitude for those helping him out and an entirely self-defeating attitude to life and work. You should hate him. But when he sings…
This is surely the brothers’ best work in years, imbued with that particular Coen Tone that seems to pervade most of their work, but that hasn’t been this unfiltered in a long time. There’s truth as much as fantasy; drama in balance with comedy. Few filmmakers have this sort of skill in baking highly incompatible ingredients into a whole with such satisfying results. It has something to say to any of us who’ve had a dream and let life get in the way, but it is definitive for any artist whose drive to persevere demands a wanton disregard for practical sense.
Of the constituent parts, there is so much to love. Oscar Isaac offers a catalogue of exasperated looks that say ten times more than his scripted lines. The cat – that damn cat – is better-written and with more believable motivations than 90% of last year’s human characters. Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake and Robin Bartlett and Adam Driver: this wonderful ensemble of colour that, again, shouldn’t work together but does. And when the film changes gear to introduce Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman, the best becomes better still.
It’s the music, though, that really makes Inside Llewyn Davis sing. They drag you right into those smokey, dark clubs. You’re sat at those tiny tables sipping whiskey, lost in the yarns being spun by the man on stage. A better film this year hasn’t been made that deals so wonderfully in atmosphere. Inside Llewyn Davis is an ode to art: how essential, and how incompatible with reality, it is.
Inside Llewyn Davis is in UK cinemas on January 24th.