(Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013)
Great filmmakers - great artists, in fact, be they novelists, playwrights, comedians, poets - have the ability to capture how it feels to be alive. The Coen Brothers absolutely possess this ability. It gets forgotten, almost, lost in the rush to praise their brilliant screenplays, beautiful visual sense and their storytelling talent. What the mainstream brands as "quirky" is their incredible ability to combine comedy and drama so that certain scenes and passages in their best work play out. Half the audience will be laughing at the deadpan wit, the beautifully observed characters, the other half sit in silence, appreciating the human drama on display. Sometimes of course, they lean more in one direction than the other. There are the outright comedies, like Raising Arizona or Intolerable Cruelty. And the dramas: No Country for Old Men or Millers Crossing, say. But it is never simple. Anton Chigurgh in No Country for Old Men is as funny as any creation in the Coens' filmography for all that he is a terrifying character in a mostly serious film. There is pathos in Raising Arizona, despite its Tex Avery comic invention.
What never changes are those moments of truth: what it is to be alive, captured in an instant, an image, a beat. Songwriters and singers do that too, which is one of the subjects of Inside Llewyn Davis. A character study of the titular figure, a struggling folk-singer in '60s Greenwich Village, played with world-weary cynicism and muted sadness by Oscar Isaac, it is a classic Coens mix of comedy and drama. Llewyn is on the downslope of a career that never really went anywhere, and he only truly realises that during the course of the story, appalled as he is by what passes for folk music around him.
His life is a ruin. He sleeps on the couches of friends, many of whom he doesn't even seem to like or respect, has no money to buy himself a coat despite the fact that it's winter, and doesn't plan for the future. His sister's suggestion that he give up music and return to life as a merchant seaman is met with the words "Just exist?"
His closest friends are Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), a folk duo. Jean is pregnant, possibly by Llewyn, and her every word in his direction positively drips venom. It becomes apparent that he uses people, and though he is never warm or nice, his essential humanity, the loneliness of his situation and his effortless capacity for self-destruction, does make him sympathetic.
A long, surreal road trip to Canada alongside a loquacious hipster (John Goodman) and his laconic driver (Garrett Hedlund) is Llewyn's breaking point, and perhaps features the film's most beautiful and haunting sequences, as Bruno Delbonnel's exquisitely soft and dank cinematography captures several breathtaking scenes of nocturnal driving; snow drifting across highways, cities glimpsed off in the night.
The music is great, the cast perfect, the clockwork collapse of Llewyn's hopes and dreams hilarious and gruelling in equal measure.