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Cinema Scope

Anatomy of a failure

11th Jan 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: Oscar Isaac, John Goodman, Carey Mulligan

You can trust the Coen brothers to come up with a comic examination of failure. You can trust them to make you laugh at a man whom you feel sorry for. Later, I wondered how, sitting in tropical weather in 2014, I could relate to the snowy New York of 1961. Perhaps the angst I felt as I left the cinema was because of how well I could relate to the eponymous cynical defeatist, played wonderfully by Oscar Isaac.

Set in Greenwich Village, the film is about the remaining half of a folk duo, who is left to ponder whether he can pull off a solo act after his partner commits suicide. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) should be able to — he's a gifted singer, a charismatic man with a sense of irony. But, looking back from half a century later, you know he doesn't stand a chance. His breed of music is dying. Bob Dylan would soon burst into the music scene and change it forever. The Beatniks would lose their glamour, their youthful existentialism communicating itself to teenagers several generations down, but passing their contemporaries by.

Davis fits the antihero template — he sofa-hops and bed-hops, taking off to Chicago with a heroin addict (John Goodman), leaving a pregnant lover, missing cat and dead partner in his wake. And yet, our hearts ache for this man as he auditions in a nightclub, as he sings to his father, as he quickly composes a risible song, Please Please Mr Kennedy (Don't Shoot Me Into Outer Space) — reminding us that this was four years after the launch of Sputnik — and chronically loses a cat.

Death and music are constant themes in the film. The way it is shot, in muted shades through evocative landscapes, infuses us with a sense of loneliness and failure that the black humour only heightens. In one brilliant sequence, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel gets us into the head of a cat.

One wishes it had ended just a few minutes before it did, at a shot that would have been simply perfect, symbolic of the crossroads the character is at. But that's only because the film is, otherwise, pitch-perfect.

The Verdict: Contemplative yet hilarious, the film is a must-watch, both for the script and for Oscar Isaac's extraordinary performance.

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