The Coen brothers’ new one has something deceptive up its sleeve. It’s a film about disappointments, tribulations, lousy friends, irritant ex-lovers, hitchhiking on snow, endless couch-surfing,being perpetually skint and failing at everything else you do. Strip away the music and we have an ultra-bleak, bloody depressing movie, existentially grim enough to put you in the gloom for a good month. This is exactly the polar opposite of a Hollywood triumphalist movie – but in the wonderful, exquisite hands of the Coens, Inside Llewyn Davis win us entirely over, making hardship look and feel rarely this splendid. Everything about it – the Coens’ light touch,the offbeat humour, Bruno Delbonell’s burnished cinematography, Oscar Isaac’s permanently perplexed face, Carey Mulligan’s black fringe and that cat – swept me along when I saw this in Cannes, where critics in attendance praised it unanimously. It confidently sways between screwball comedy and poignant character drama about someone who just can’t make it into the world of folk music despite the efforts.
The premise is familiar, sure, but the Coens handle it with such sure-footed grace and nimble lightness that’s remarkable. Llewyn’s micro-journey around New York, living off from his friends and hitch a ride to an audition in Chicago seem straightforward and banal, but the banality and insignificance of failure at his every attempt to make things better is the film’s greatest arsenal. Whether losing a cat in the streets, or being screamed at by the hilarious and magnificently hysterical Mulligan playing Llewyn’s ex-fling Jean, or screwing up a dinner party due to an unexpected duet – the script pulls the rug at these seemingly trivial moments, revealing an emotional undertow that’s extremely heartfelt. The Coens also showcase extraordinary economy in eschewing words and let Llewyn play his tune, one of the few moving scenes see Llewyn visiting his father in a retirement home. And boy, when Oscar Isaac sings (a wonderfully-pitched performance, by the way) – his Llewyn Davis become a figure of such existential pain and melancholy that no dialogue can match.[separator type=”space”] DIRECTOR: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen | CAST: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman | SCREENPLAY: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen | DISTRIBUTOR: Studiocanal | RUNNING-TIME: 105 mins | GENRE: Drama | COUNTRY: USA