The Coen brothers have one of the most unique directing styles and they've proven that yet again with their latest film "Inside Llewyn Davis". With this film, they've perhaps made their most Coen-y film to date. It has the bleak atmosphere of "Fargo", the dry humour of "A Serious Man" and the zany characters that can be found in any Coen brothers film. In gathering all these elements, they've made a film that is both beguiling and befuddling.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the story of a struggling musician (the title character) living in 1960s New York. He plays folk music and is fairly good at it, but he can't seem to catch a break. As he wanders around the city and eventually to Chicago, we follow his aimless quest for a fresh start.
Now, I've read many claims that the film's brilliance reveals itself on repeat viewings and I now understand why. The film is not bound by plot in the traditional sense, as the character doesn't have a defined arc and there are no pivotal plot climaxes. What we have here is a portrait of a man who is despondent about his life and is unable to change it. It's a sad notion and the Coens have mined this melancholy for all its worth. Apart from the misfortunes that fall upon the protagonist, there's also the suitably dreary cinematography that captures the frigid winter conditions of the setting (made worse by his lack of a winter coat). It really makes for a rather gloomy affair.
This isn't to say that it's a torturous viewing experience though. Even though the tone is bleak, it looks and feels compellingly authentic. In addition, the mood is frequently lightened by some vibrant supporting characters (played by Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and others) who all make his life miserable in that amusingly peculiar Coen brothers way. They add needed weight to the film, as the accumulation of their oppressive vibes allow you to sympathize with Llewyn and understand his attitude.
Of course, I must also mention the music, which is easily the best aspect of the film. The casting of Oscar Isaac was genius, as he delivers some stirring musical renditions that nicely compliment his remarkable embodiment of the character. Llewyn Davis' life may be dull, but his music is full of passion. It's obvious that he has talent and yet, he finds no success. Understanding this dilemma is the most puzzling aspect of the movie and the character's general apathy doesn't help matters.
Unfortunately, the Coens are not interested in holding your hand and providing comfort. This is no "rags to riches" fairy tale. It's the cold hard truth of life's unfairness and it hangs over the film like a dark cloud. The extent to which this appeals to you is therefore entirely up to personal taste and may even be dependent on your own success and failures.
For me, if left me cautiously enthusiastic about the film's quality. On the one hand, there's no denying that much care was put into the making of the film from a "technical" standpoint (cinematography, sound etc.). However, I am reluctant to praise the script for essentially introducing the character and his predicament and then simply coasting through the narrative without anything significant happening. It's so resolute in conveying its eternal stasis that there are hardly any scenes that stand out in my memory (apart from the musical moments).
The Coens have perhaps achieved their intended effect (evoking the despair of the struggling artist) but it feels lacking. Simply put, I have the utmost respect for the filmmaking but the storytelling left me unsatisfied. There's still so much to appreciate though, so I'd confidently recommend it to most.