The repertoire of American filmmaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen has become so rich and diverse, so full of pleasure and profundity, and so deeply tuned to people, places and feelings, history will leave their discoverers spoiled for choice.
From Raising Arizona to Fargo, The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother Where Art Thou and No Country For Old Men, the Coens’ work has provided such a boon to American cinema the words “perhaps their best yet” are now almost meaningless.
Critics have bandied around “best ever” bumper stickers in relation to Inside Llewyn Davis, a Greenwich Village ’60s-set drama that follows a Dylan-esque folk singer. He winces in the cold, scabs smokes, and surfs between couches and low-lit clubs.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a skinflint troubadour, reportedly inspired by Dave Van Ronk. He could just as well have been Dylan, Donovan, Rodriguez, Joni Mitchell or any folk singer from the time who passed around the hat and dreamed of making it out of honkytonks and breaking through to the big time. But this isn’t a film about creating legends or fulfilling stage-lit destiny.
In many ways, Inside Llewyn Davis is the opposite: a bittersweet salute to the never-has-beens. Isaac’s terrific performance – a gritty mesh of self-righteousness, self-loathing and pent-up frustration – is the resounding breakthrough his character never had.
In a small but unforgettable role as a bleary-eyed traveller Davis meets en route to Chicago, John Goodman reminds us how, in the right pair of hands, he is one of the finest supporting actors in the business. The Coens bring out of Goodman (a la Barton Fink, O Brother Where Art Thou and now, especially, Inside Llewyn Davis) something deeply and sadly humane, as if they have an intravenous drip straight into the dark side of Goodman’s soul.
The tendency when making a film that taps into a celebrated era is to squint with rose-tinted glasses through a mist of memories and fantasies. There is a hip-hip-hooraying associated with stories of bygone movements. There is a lack of understanding, or a lack of care, or a lack of interest towards the infinite array of people who never fulfilled their aspirations.
After travelling to Chicago and performing a beautiful rendition of one of his songs, the club owner Davis is trying to impress responds matter of factly: “I don’t see much money.” In that response much of the film exists: a sour balance between creative beauty and the business end of it; a transition of moods that genuinely savours the moment then genuinely sours it.
Inside Llewyn Davis reminds us that the elusive “back then” cannot be defined in terms of better or worse. If glory days existed for one person they may have come at the expense of another. The film’s towering achievement is that it cuts through the haze of nostalgia while celebrating what made a certain place at a certain time special.
It can be hard to generate impact by throwing superlatives at a Coen brothers film when so many have been thrown before. Nevertheless, Inside Llewyn Davis is a magnificent work. For what it’s worth: yes, it’s one of their finest.
This review was first published on The Daily Review.