Enter The Gaslight Poetry Café 1961, smoky and atmospheric lighting highlights a dim stage and a singer under spotlight. The surrounding audience is still except for some bar staff in the background and a few draughts of smoke barely taken in. The onstage performer is giving it his all, completely heartfelt and eerily resonate. The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, have always been known to have a distinctive flare for great cinematic lighting, and the opening sequence to Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception.
There’s something charming and ludicrously endearing about this tale of a folk singer struggling to get by. Ever determined to make it in his own way as a solo act, Llewyn is up against a lot of things he doesn’t like and doesn’t want to become. His stubborn mindset is at least partly attributable to a tragic back story revealed along the way. Llewyn spends his time living for the music and relying on the kindness of others much more than is comfortable. His is a typically ramshackle bohemian existence, rambling through life with only the company of an accidentally accrued companion – his friend’s cat.
Typically nostalgic of New York as a city, the setting is Greenwich Village for the larger part. The interior and exterior shots of life in the city perfectly capture the essence of the period. New York as a city is one of the most heavily featured landscapes in American film, but the Coens have managed to breathe a new life into what could seem tired and overused scenery.
The Coens have ensured that the comforting sounds of folk music permeate the film throughout, and like O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000), the narrative seems to wrap itself around the music rather than the other way around.
Witty and sarcastic, the Coen’s dry humour is as dominant in the writing as usual. Here the quality that keeps the narrative fresh and uplifting is the introduction of spontaneous random events which seem to confront Llewyn with every step he takes -a constant flux of people and colourful conversations make each moment memorable. Eccentrics, liberalists, politicians and idealists bring a wealth of charisma and charm, and all are met with Llewyn’s consistently blunt and unapologetic attitude. And interestingly, the film’s events all take place over the space of only one week.
John Goodman is notable for a brash and unforgiving performance that sets up Llewyn’s hitchhiking travelling days from New York to Chicago.
Folk songs are often lamentations about past mistakes and tales of regret, and in its own way, Inside Llewyn Davis reflects this tradition. An anthology of life’s struggles, a lonely man on an uncertain path, the places one man visits and the people he meets along the way. Inside Llewyn Davis is nowhere near the glory days of Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998), but it’s certainly one of the better Coen features of recent years.