From the modern Midwest to depression-era Deep South, the Coen Brothers are independent filmmakers who revel in depicting different places and eras of America and painting them in their own idiosyncratic style.
Their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis, charts the efforts of the aforementioned musician (Oscar Isaac) as he struggles to make ends meet in 1960s New York folk scene. This richly realised drama from the Coens is both a thoughtful examination of a period often overlooked, and a melancholic story about the struggles artists go through to achieve success without losing their soul.
With On the Road and Howl released in the last couple of years, there's been a renewed interest in documenting the spirit of the 50s/60s Greenwich Village beat generation. But aside from the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, there were many other artists and musicians who floundered about the area, struggling for success.
Llewyn Davis was one of those people. Jewish, with a Welsh name, he's a frustrated and restless beatnik, too full of arrogance and stubborn pride to change his ways as he insists on making a living off the music he plays. Sleeping on the sofas of those in his address book, he rides the subway moving from place to place, but his life isn't going anywhere.
His sister Joy (Jeanine Serralles), along with married couple Jim (Justin Timberlake) and the capricious Jean (Carey Mulligan) look after him and offer advice. But this is a man refusing to bow to the whims of the fledgling music industry, alienating those around him as a result. He's clearly got the talent, but not the personality to succeed. An exasperated Jean asks him, "Do you ever think about the future?"
The Coens have always had an ear for great film soundtracks and it's no different here, as old classic folk songs are performed in their entirety by members of the cast. Isaac in particular captivates when performing. His rendition of Dave Van Ronk's 'Hang Me, Oh Hang Me' at the Gaslight Café that opens the film, and his intimate take on Ewan MacColl's 'The Shoals of Herring' in front of his senile father, are both great melodic moments that offer respite for Llewyn from the bitter harsh winter of New York that he must trudge through.
The filmmaker's deadpan humour is similarly infused throughout the film, with Llewyn's struggles looking after a cat, the appearance of a clean cloth army musician (Stark Sands), and John Goodman's turn as a boorish jazz musician eliciting the most laughs.
But for the most part this is a mature and sombre piece by the Coens, a companion to A Serious Man that is the fruitful evidence of a well-seasoned career. It also shares with the latter film the idea of the cursed character who feels the world is against him. So much goes wrong for Llewyn throughout the film, a lot of it his own doing, that when at one gig a certain famous folk singer takes the stage after him it feels like the final twist of the knife.
Whilst A Serious Man dealt with a crisis of faith in the face of suffering, here the film seems to preach the difficulties of soldiering on in life alone. Llewyn is a man who resists companionship, insists on performing solo, but ends up isolated and lost at sea. From two filmmakers whose success stem from working together, it's easy to see where the inspiration for such a story comes from.
Inside Llewyn Davis is screening as part of the 2013 London Film Festival. The film will be released in UK cinemas nationwide from 24 January.
London Film Festival Reviews