If you had to guess the screenwriter and/or director of a film featuring the line “Where is his scrotum?” with respect to a ginger cat, how long would it take you to come up with the name ‘Coen’? There are definitely many examples of the brothers’ trademark deadpanned quirks throughout Inside Llewyn Davis – at the same time, though, their latest is a remarkably low-key – and dare I say “mature” without sounding really old? – work, scrotum or no scrotum.
There are many things the film isn’t; for one thing, I wouldn’t call it original, as its characters and story beats are pretty familiar, nor is it as comedic as many of the Coens’ films, although it is frequently amusing. It is, however, a film that is crafted almost to perfection, knowing what it wants to be and how best to be it. This is nowhere as apparent as in Oscar Isaac’s performance as the title character, a singer-songwriter trying to find his place in the folk music scene of the ’60s. This isn’t an award-grabbing performance, remaining mostly internalised throughout, yet there’s not a single beat, line, gesture or lack thereof that could be changed without losing the character’s essential quality. Llewyn Davis is not an easy character to like, often exuding an understated mix of resentment, self-pity and arrogance underlying his lack of direction or drive, but Isaac, working with a strong script, makes him engaging – and that’s when he isn’t singing. When he is, you want to keep listening to Davis’ voice.
Just as essential to the film’s success as the central performance, the script and the music, is its beautiful cinematography, for once not by longtime Coen collaborator Roger Deakins but by Bruno Delbonnel of Amélie fame. I’ve long been annoyed with the nostalgia porn of so many films set in the ’60s or ’70s, but while Inside Llewyn Davis looks beautiful, it’s not the usual commodified attractiveness of the past that cinema tends to peddle. Delbonnel’s images are gorgeous to look at, but that doesn’t keep his New York and Chicago, his big city streets and smoky clubs, from being cold, dingy and unwelcoming. The film has an artist’s view of the ’60s, not a tourist’s.
So, in short, the film is surely one of the Coens’ most accomplished features – though I’m not sure the film will stay with me to the same extent that some of the Coens’ earlier works have; Fargo will always be special to be for being the first of the brothers’ films I’ve seen (and with my later wife, so it’s loaded with personal significance), and movies such as Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and The Man Who Wasn’t There have probably left more of an imprint due to who I was when I saw them. As much as I liked Inside Llewyn Davis, it didn’t resonate with me the way that these other films did – but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that in the Coens’ oeuvre, Inside Llewyn Davis may just be the most pitch-perfect, beautifully made.