You can size up this blacker-than-black, early 1960s time capsule from the writer-directors of ‘The Big Lebowski’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’ from all sorts of angles. Is it a sideways look at a music scene? A melancholic but extremely funny riff on what it was like to be a struggling folk singer in Manhattan in 1961 who didn’t go the way of Bob Dylan? A love letter to the absurdities of being an artist? You could even, at a stretch, call it a slippery, askew glance at Dylan himself. Bob’s here in spirit, and if you look hard enough, maybe even in person.
Whatever you call it, it’s special. As if the cover of 1963’s ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ album had come alive, with its muted colours and snowy, scrappy streets, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ offers a week in the life of a folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) and is loosely based on the memoir of Dave Van Ronk, a real musician on the scene at the time.
Davis is wound-up – almost washed-up – and his life is falling to pieces after some fleeting success in a pop duo. The only work he can get is as a session musician on a ropey single and some nights he performs at the dingy Gaslight in the Village. He has a fractious relationship with a spiky, angry ex-lover (Carey Mulligan, a singer, sweet as pie on stage, sour as lemons off it), and flits between friends’ sofas, showbiz offices and bars. He also takes a trip to Chicago, hitching a ride with a vile, bitter jazzman (John Goodman) and his near-silent young sidekick (Garrett Hedlund). This is a world of half-colours, whose palette barely ventures beyond greys, greens and browns. The times haven’t quite a-changed, and someone forgot to tell the ’60s of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ that they’re meant to be swinging.
Here are the Coens in the miniature, funny-weird-sombre mode of ‘A Serious Man’, although the love they show for the music nods to ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ too. They gently mock the folk scene with all its beards and earnest talk, but mostly their attitude towards this time and place is as tender and warm as the film’s wintry weather is oppressive. Not that they don’t enjoy playing god with Davis, their selfish, self-regarding main character, redeemed only by his talent. When we see him being beaten up in an alleyway at the beginning and end of the film, we’re sorry, but he deserves it.
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a sad, sometimes cruel, often hilarious counterfactual version of music history – with a wonderful soundtrack of folk standards (mostly sung by the actors) that lingers long in the memory.