“Just exist?” laments the title character in the Coen brothers’ latest treatise on American society. Yet existing is the most appropriate – perhaps the only appropriate – description of the character of Llewyn Davis. Pervasive ennui is not, of course, anything new for a Coen brothers’ film. But here it is taken up a notch – Davis has none of the piety of Larry Gopnik in ‘A Serious Man’, nor the brash self-confidence of The Dude in ‘The Big Lebowski’. Llewyn Davis’s raison d’etre is music – folk music, to be precise – and the film contains probably an album’s worth of heartfelt renditions, most performed as live.
Yet exactly who, or what, Davis is performing for is the central question which haunts the plot. He mourns the loss of partners musical and romantic but his greatest emotional involvement is with a cat. The music, meanwhile, veers from a means to an end to an end in itself as Davis rues missed opportunities even as they pass him by.
In truth, Inside Llewyn Davis would work almost as well as a radio play. This is not to take away from the film’s often striking palettes – from the urban greys to rural beige – but the film’s central tension is wrought by the use of sound. Davis’s engrossing melodies battle for the soul of the film against atonal percussion – from the sudden spurts of subway cars in Manhattan to the tap-tap-tap of a waitress’s fingernail on an unpaid bill.
The film certainly has moments of both heavy drama and light relief, but lacking certainly is the ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ which characterises most nostalgic nods to the sixties: the sex has already happened, the drugs are taken by other characters and the rock’n’roll is, well, folk. But the film is all the better for it. ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ forgoes making a cliche of its context and instead serves up a smorgasbord of sound. You leave feeling as if, appropriately enough, you’ve been to a folk concert: it’s an experience so alluring that you’re content not to know exactly what every song was about.